Sunday, June 26, 2011

At A Snails Pace

Swedish Snail w/House
Today’s discussion will be about all the snails I have seen on this trip. I’m sure there are snails in Minnesota, but they aren’t such a common occurrence that I am immune to them. The best looking snail by far was the one in someone’s yard, perfect for playing on. No yucky slime, no antennae.

Then there were the cute ones. Real, live snails carrying their little houses around on their backs. I admit to being a little put off by the mostly transparent body, but when compared with the others, these are
Disney material: cute and lovable. But then there are the others…

One day we went for a walk, to loosen up Leif’s legs after the long race. Because of the heavy rains the day before, there were lots of puddles and wet areas on the roads. I noticed something brown on the road and stopped to see what it was. What it was is something that here translates into “killer snail.” I don’t know, “killer snail” just doesn’t strike fear into my heart the way “killer bees” does. No one runs in terror from “killer snails” like they would from a killer shark. There will not be a thrilling movie, “Killer Snails: Terror at 2 Millimeters Per Hour.“ The best this snail can hope for is a documentary, maybe with Discovery Channel, but probably with public television. This name doesn’t mean that it is carnivorous (like killer tomatoes, one of the great stupid movies of all time) or that it has some kind of great hate for humans, but that it isn’t native to this country and so has no natural predators and eats everything in it’s slimy path. It is about 3 inches long, fat and ugly.

There were so many of them I had to watch where I was walking. They obviously don‘t use the survival instincts that the good Lord gave them. When it rains they try to get across the road, blissfully unaware that the rain will stop and the added boost the rain gives their slime will be gone, leaving them stranded mid-road with little hope of reaching the other side alive. I freely admit to kicking a number of them back into the middle of the road in the hopes that some car would “accidentally” hit them. I didn’t do any actual killing and so my conscience is clear.

We ran into a different kind of snail on our car excursion trip. This is one of the normal snails for the region. These also aren’t cute cartoon snails, but big, black, slimy ones that look like bloated leeches with antennae. Sorry there is no picture, but it was pouring rain. On second thought, I’m not sorry. You don’t want to see it. If you can believe it, they are even bigger and nastier than the other snails, but native to the region and so not reviled as deeply as the “killer snail.“ They don’t carry a little shell around with them and no one knows where they go when the rain stops but they always show up when it is wet out. I am going with the night crawler theory: the rain forces them out of their little holes and they are just trying to find a way back underground. Sounds so much better than that the rain re-hydrates them and they go on a feeding frenzy. Eeewww.

Oh, and maybe the best part…all these snails are also cannibals. Just think how deadly they’d be if they had any speed whatsoever.

Killer Snail

The Excursion

This morning it wasn’t raining…so Leif and I went for a walk to the local castle. Before you get all excited thinking that every town has it’s own medieval castle with battlements or even just a ruined tower sitting around, understand that the word “castle” here is simply a home for royalty. So many castles are more like a Swedish “chateau“, really a very large and beautiful home that is actually pretty contemporary considering Sweden’s long history.

Actually, what happened here in Sturefores and I suppose in many towns is that the royalty, somewhere between 1700 and 1900 decided that the old family home was just too outdated and they replaced it with something more sophisticated, with modern conveniences like electricity and indoor plumbing. But many ruined and going to ruin (actual) castles were torn down to make room for the new castle. The castle here is very pretty, built in the 1700’s, with a beautiful formal garden dating from the same period and several little “funny” houses built in the style of different cultures. The Chinese house is where Leif’s brother proposed to his girlfriend Karin last month.

Vreta Kloster Kyrka
 That afternoon, as promised, we all got into Tomas’ car and started our “little excursion with the car.” Five of us went: me, Leif, Tomas, their father and Frederick…a good friend to Tomas and Leif. It looked like rain, so we packed rain boots (for the off-road activity, whatever that meant) and coats, folding chairs and the cooler and of course my camera for our drive around the lake near Linkoping. First stop was an old church and ruined cloister from around 1100. It’s a beautiful place, far different from the churches in Florence. Still vaulted, but not as high. None of the colorful frescoes of the later catholic churches, just lots of gray stone. Pews in place, with little doors and numbers so each family knew where they were supposed to sit. Frederick and I walked around taking about a million pictures while the rest watched me and I’m pretty sure laughed at me. I like ruined things, broken things, things that have used by people and show that use. It gives them life.

We all piled back into the car and drove to the next site, but on the way we saw an actual ruin of a castle tried to see it, but it is a private property. Belonging, in fact, to the major family buried in the church we had just left. Douglas…not a very Swedish sounding name, but they said that they weren’t Swedish, but probably Scottish from several centuries ago. This was the old castle (yes, really a castle with a tower and everything) and their new home was right in front of it. Maybe when they are done restoring it I’ll look and tell you about it.

The next stop was a canal built between two lakes. We followed a couple of canoes through the locks (one lake is higher than the other) and watched the rain come towards us across the lake. It’s a big lake and shallow. Probably a lot like Mille Lacs in Minnesota. In a country filled with lakes, this one was created to help complete a waterway between the east and west coasts of Sweden. We decided to start again before the rain reached our next stop: the mysterious “off road” adventure.

This was the north shore of the lake, where the glaciers had scraped everything away and what’s left looks just like the woods we find “up north” in Minnesota. Big stands of pines planted years ago, poplars, birches and oaks. This region is known for the oaks that grow here. They are strong and grow like weeds and were harvested almost into extinction for shipbuilding. As we drove we kept our eyes open for deer and moose, all the while claiming that the virtual downpour we were driving through was really only a few small drops and shouldn’t stop us from walking for a bit. Well, everyone except Tomas and Leif. OK, really just me and Frederic, everyone else wanted to skip the walk.

But being the gentlemen that they are they left the decision up to me and the rain really had let up by then. So we put on our boots and jackets, grabbed the umbrella and the cooler and headed off across a rye field. Halfway across the field it started to rain again, not much, but enough to make several in the group look at me with crossed eyes. Once we got into the trees it wasn’t as wet and we marched onward towards the “perfect” spot according to Frederick, who first discovered this place years ago. It is now and official “historic” spot with ruins from several different centuries somewhere out there in the woods. We were headed for the Iron Age fortress, which has a fantastic view of the channel between the lake we had driven around and the rest of the chain of lakes. It was only a pile of rocks, but the view truly was worth getting wet for.

We unpacked the cooler and took turns standing under the one umbrella, eating our sandwiches and drinking our coffee. Leif’s dad followed the whole way, preferring his clogs to rain boots and shunning the umbrella completely. It really was a fun adventure for me and one I didn’t want to miss because of a little rain. What if I don’t get back here? I didn’t want to miss anything, and Tomas said that for him it was nice to get visitors so he can see his country again. Leif says that taking me places lets him see with new eyes, because we look at the world very differently most of the time. On the way back to the car, Frederick ate part of a fern root with me. He says that they are good “bush” food if you get lost in the woods. I suppose so, they taste almost like licorice. But this is also the guy who picked up a snail, put it under his nose and asked me what I thought of his moustache. He is probably one of those people who can see the word “sucker” tattooed on my forehead.

Back at the car we took all the rain gear off and stowed it into the trunk and packed ourselves back into the car. Did I mention that there were two men and me in the back seat of a BMW sedan? We didn’t really need the seat belts, we were held in place by the force of the doors against our bodies, but rules are rules. We decided to skip one of the last stops because we missed our turn and headed for our last castle of the day.

This was another site which had a new castle built on it, but the site was fantastic. It’s possible to walk to the castle on two sides. The other two are sheer drop offs to a huge valley below that used to be a lake. Absolutely breathtaking. Also easy to see how this spot was easily defendable. It also gave us a great view of the coming storm, which was blowing up strongly with thunder and lightening, so we decided to call it a day. And it was a great day.

Random Thoughts...Sort Of

It has been interesting seeing Sweden without the snow. It reminds me so much of Minnesota, right down to the huge granite boulders pushing through the fields here and there. There are lakes and rivers and so many trees that are the same. Oaks trees and pine forests like we see in northern Minnesota. The white birches look mostly the same, except the branches weep like a willow trees does. There are roses and hedges of bridal veil and juniper trees.

There are great sections of land that have been cleared and planted in crops, but the crops are different. This is definitely not corn country. There were fields covered in a low blue-green plant that had a blue haze of blossoms hovering above it. Someone told me they thought it was linseed. What ever it was, it was such a beautiful thing to see. I wish we had the time to stop and walk into one so that I could smell it. In my imagination it smells better than lavender, more beautiful than roses. In reality it probably smells like a skunk. There are also fields filled with yellow flowers, bright yellow like every little kid colors the sun. I don’t know what they are. Leif said they were used for some kind of cooking oil. I will have to do some research on that one.

We had lunch with Leif’s sister, her fiancé and their two children. The girls are sweet, 12 and almost 6, and full of energy. Even the little one is trying to learn English so she can talk to me. Her fiancé on the other hand is one of those people I can’t seem to stop picking on. He has a great sense of humor and always has that “I just did something wrong but you’ll never guess what” look on his face. I can’t resist giving him crap, but I probably should. He reminds me of my brother, always joking, always picking on his girls, and they always give as good as they get from him. Very fun to watch, even if it's usually in Swedish.

It has rained all day, so I haven’t been able to get out and see more for you. I am hopeful for tomorrow. Leif’s brother called today and said he was “thinking of a small excursion in the car for tomorrow." I think his phrasing sounds way more exciting than “hopping in the car and looking for something to do." This sounds far more exotic: something requiring picnic baskets and blankets, definitely a camera and some Dramamine. He drives fast and I will be in the back seat.

Race Day

I should correct my numbers from yesterday. There were 23,000 start numbers issued and 19,000 people officially started the race this morning. It may interest you to know that Leif’s group was the first to start without lights. Yes, at 3:40 in the morning it was no longer necessary to use lights. I think they have a whole hour and a half of actual night here right now. So early this morning (1:15am) the alarm went off and Leif got dressed, ate breakfast and left for his bike race. I am a terrible girlfriend. I didn’t get up with him. I didn’t exactly fall asleep right away, but figured he didn’t really need me, and he might be more comfortable being his “before a race” self without me around. His dad is used to it. Leif has been racing since he was about 15 years old and his dad has been with him the whole way.

Which brings us to his dad, Tord. While Leif is off happily (in my mind anyway) pedaling around a lake I am waking up in a house without English. Just me and his dad. He is really a wonderful man who is very careful with me always. We just can’t speak to each other. So this morning we silently emptied the dishwasher together, set the table for breakfast, ate breakfast and then cleaned up. It was a pleasant meal, just very quiet. I discovered that I chew loudly. I may in fact slurp my coffee slightly. When he bit into his flat bread topped with caviar it sounded like an explosion. Halfway through breakfast even the stoic Swede couldn’t take it anymore and turned on the radio.

Leif’s mother passed away several years ago, so his dad is turning back into a bachelor. As everyone knows, single people live differently than people who share a space and a life with another person. Certain economies begin to happen and habits are formed in seclusion. For example, when a woman lives in a house the toilet paper is comfortable. It doesn’t have to feel like sitting on clouds of gossamer silk and chiffon, but it shouldn’t feel like sliding across a tree trunk either. A happy medium in feel and price is called for. Men don’t have these same guidelines for toilet paper. His dad buys his in a pack as big as an over-sized suitcase. He keeps it in the basement because there isn’t a cupboard in the house big enough for it. It looks like cheap paper toweling made out of grey newsprint with Braille printed everywhere. I’ll let you form your own opinion as to feel. I’ll just say that when we visited in December I had a cold and in half a day of using it to blow my nose my upper lip began to look like I slid across a concrete driveway on it. ‘Nuff said.

But I really like him. He reminds me of my dad. He cross country skis in the winter and rides his bike in the summer. Like my dad, he feels that many manufacturers lack some common sense when designing products and he likes to make his own “improvements” to those things he uses most. Like his skis. He wanted to find a way to stop sliding backwards with his skis, without stripping and reapplying wax for each different temperature and snow condition. His solution was to mount a gate hinge on the back of his ski that would open flat when he moved forward but would be pushed into an “L” shape if he started to slide backwards and act as a brake. He also got tired of his poles breaking through the snow and plunging down so deeply he couldn’t push forward. His solution to that was to cut a salad plate sized disc out of sheet metal and mount it directly below the manufacturers small plastic disc. Again, like my dad, I’m sure that he didn’t have to buy a thing to make these improvements. He was able to use odds and ends of things sitting in his workroom. The only thing better than improving a sub-standard product is to do it for free. They could be twins.

He jingled his car keys at me about 11:30. This meant “time to go” so we went to his brother’s house to get them before heading to the finish of the race. He had been getting text updates on Leif’s progress and said that he was projected to arrive at 2:30pm earlier in the morning, but that the projection was now for 1:23pm. Which would be great, because that would put his time for 300 kilometers at around 9hours 30 minutes. And he arrived at 1:30 making his official time exactly 9:30. He was very happy with that time. I was just happy that he had survived the ride and seemed to have had a very good time with the group he rode with.

He was sore, needless to say, but nothing hurt and he slept like a baby. I did too, who knew a day spent mostly in silence could be so exhausting?

The Day Before the Big Race

We spent today getting Leif and his bike ready for the bike race he will be riding in tomorrow. It is called the Vätternrundan, which I think means “around the lake.” It is a 300 kilometer race around a lake. If you think this is the kind of race no one rides in you’d be wrong, there are almost 20,000 start numbers; at least 15,000 of which will probably show up and ride. And not just Swedes, mind you, but people from all over the world. Apparently it’s a big deal.

He put his bike together in the morning. It was a little nerve-wracking because he had to take the handle bars, seat, pedals and wheels off to get it into the special bike suitcase. I think he actually held his breath as he opened the case up. He was worried, as anyone would be, that the bike would be broken in some way. We have all seen the American Tourister commercial with the apes beating up on luggage. A giant case that says “CAREFUL, dream bike inside” is certain to attract the wrong kind of attention from overpaid but dissatisfied baggage handlers. He has heard horror stories from cycling friends about their bikes and the way they have been handled by the airlines and by security people.

But he and his dad got it all back together again in time for us to get in the car and go to his brother’s house so we could go to the town where the start/finish of the race is to sign in for the race. It is a cute little town on the edge of a large (obviously, it’s 300k around) lake. Right now it’s absolutely buried in people. This is a multi-day event and those always have a circus of side shows happening all around town. An outdoor gym offering spin classes (funny, huh?), live music, food, food and more food. Anyone who has been to a trade show or in a race knows exactly what waited inside the sign in tent, but thankfully the sign in was before the sales floor. It was a quick trip for them to sign in. I think it took longer for us to get ice cream because I couldn’t think of how to say yes in Swedish. Ja, I know, duh.

Leif’s brother was supposed to ride with him but hurt his knee so he isn’t able to ride tomorrow. He got his number anyway and was lucky enough to have a friend call and say that he knew someone who wanted to buy his number. This involved numerous phone calls and a trip to the IKEA parking lot. I felt sort of like I was in the middle of a Swedish drug deal, without the drugs. I don’t know if it’s exactly illegal to sell your number, but I’m sure it’s frowned on. I told them if I ended up in a Swedish prison one of them would have to call my mother and explain, and she would not be happy. They both laughed (but I think it was nervous laughter, a mother is nothing to trifle with) and told me it was fine.

We picked up Tomas’ (new) fiancée from the train station and went to their father’s house for dinner. After an excellent Swedish pizza (lots of shrimp choices) everyone trooped downstairs to look at Leif’s bike. He bought it in Italy and no one in his family has seen it. I asked, naturally, if he had taken it for a little test spin to be sure everything was working right. He said no, I frowned, he gave me a look, I said “hey, at some point you should at least sit on it to be sure the seat doesn’t fall off.” He couldn’t really argue with that logic and so with his jeans tucked into his socks above a pair of his father’s clogs and wearing a purple windbreaker two sizes too big he rode up and down the street a few times. Nothing fell off or froze up, so he declared the bike ready for the race and put it away again.

His brother and his girlfriend left, saying that Leif had better get some sleep before he has to get up for his early start tomorrow. They weren’t kidding. He has to get up at 1:15am (0115 for you 24 hour clock freaks, I mean fans) to get to his ride by 2:30 so they can get to the meeting point in time for his 3:40am start. What, you thought all 15,000 riders would start at the same time? They began the stagger starts at 8:30 this evening and will have starts every 6 or 10 minutes apart all night. The fastest riders will finish 7 to 8 hours after their start, while others will be riding for maybe 18 hours. Leif is shooting for a time under 10 hours. I’m thinking he’s gonna be pretty tired when he’s done. Uffdah.

Back in Sweden

Last night we arrived back in Sweden. The last time I came here was in December and I was looking forward to seeing what was underneath all that snow they had then. We got into the airport late, almost midnight. We had amused ourselves all evening watching six Italian women traveling with us on their first trip to Stockholm. They were in their late fifties or early sixties and I think if they had this much fun in the airports and plane, Stockholm will never be the same. We landed just before midnight and they were still chatting away and laughing, taking pictures of the sunset (I know, way too late for a sunset, but it was there) out of the plane windows and pointing at everything they saw. It was light enough to see that there was no snow (yay) and that there was a lot of water around. Really, it was like landing in Minnesota.

Leif’s father met us at the airport and drove us home. It was a strange drive. As I looked out the left side window I could see a beautiful, soft blue velvet sky with the nearly full moon shining through a veil of clouds. Straight ahead seemed like the sky just as dusk is turning to night, an odd mixture of light and dark that makes it hard to see anything clearly, yet everything is still visible. Out the right side window was a sky at sunset. Not the bright and vivid colors of the new sunset, but the muted colors of the memory of a sunset. Pinks, golds and reds stained the sky and cloud bottoms.

In Minnesota, this is the sky that happens just moments before darkness arrives and so I waited, watching for that blue darkness to suddenly drop over the colors of the clouds. Then both sides of the sky would match and night would have begun. It has to begin sometime, right? It was after midnight after all. It never happened. I kept looking from one side of the car to the other. So strange to see evening and night happening at the same time separated by what? Nothing, that I could see. Just two sides of the sky, one at sunset and the other at night, all the way to Leif’s home. Very strange indeed.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why Did the Italian Cross the Bike Lane?

Yesterday Leif and I were riding our bikes to the outdoor market at the closest piazza and I noticed something strange…ok, not strange for Florence, but strange when compared to my experiences in Minnesota.

For those who don’t know, Minneapolis, Minnesota recently replaced Portland, Oregon as the most bike friendly city in the US. Pretty good for a city that spends almost six months of the year being “bike friendly” under a blanket of fresh snow. They were awarded this title because Minneapolis has dedicated commuter and recreational bike trails throughout the metro area. They are also expanding their on-street bike lanes. The city buses have bike racks on the front for bad weather or those who can’t get all the way to their destination on the bike trails and riders can bring their bike on the light rail for free. There are bike rental/sharing agencies for those who don’t/can’t own a bike. There are a number of bike coops in town that help promote the concept of biking as a reasonable alternative to something with a motor.

Which brings me to what I saw yesterday that struck me so hard. What I haven’t seen in Minneapolis (and excuse me please if things have changed since last fall) is a line of pedestrians along the bike lane (immediately next to the sidewalk) watching impatiently for a break in the stream of bike traffic in both directions so they can get across. At first I thought it was just funny, all these people were anxiously watching for a break between bikes big enough to cross a bike lane that was only four feet wide. But then I realized it wasn’t funny, really. It was what should be happening in Minneapolis. But then Minneapolis doesn’t have the network of bike lanes that Florence does, allowing bikers to ride to many places almost exclusively on bike lanes.

In Minneapolis I haven’t seen a curb separating the bike lane from the motorized traffic lanes when they are forced to share the same surface. I haven’t seen a street lined with hundreds of bicycles chained to every available surface, not even on a college campus. I haven’t seen what I see here, so many people commuting by bike: professionals, parents with children, students, “real” cyclists, the elderly. If I stop on any street at almost any time of day I know that I will see at least one person on a bicycle, if not a whole crowd of them.

Most importantly, I haven’t seen drivers in Minneapolis treat bikers the way drivers in Florence treat bikes and their riders. In Florence everyone shares the road. Yes there are sometimes problems, but the majority of drivers here treat bikes like another car, not like the enemy. I am responsible to look out for cars and they are responsible to look out for me. I have seen a biker cross 4 lanes (I am guessing here as lanes of traffic don’t really happen) of cars in the space of a block so they could turn left. There were no horns blaring, no sudden moves by any of the cars and trucks (this was close to rush hour). No one appeared to find it unusual or risky. Just part of getting around Florence, no matter what you are getting around in.

I still miss riding around the lakes in Minneapolis and taking some of the trails out to the suburbs. But I don’t miss the anxiety I used to feel trying to get from place to place. Sharing the road with people who expect that bike riders will take thoughtless risks and are angry about that (before anything even happens) makes every ride feel hostile. I am enjoying being a full partner on the road with cars, buses, trucks and scooters. I hope that my friends in Minneapolis begin to feel that more as Minneapolis basks in its’ title of “Most Bike Friendly City in the US” and takes steps to hold on to it in the future.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

It's Morning Somewhere

Yesterday was a strange day for me. I was going to say I had to get up at 6am, but actually Leif had to get up to work and out of sympathy I got up too. It was hard, which is surprising because I have always been a morning person, kind of prided myself on the fact that I got so much done before most other people even considered getting out of bed. This has apparently changed. I pretty much wandered around the apartment in a haze while he bustled back and forth, washing his bike and packing the cooler and getting ready. I think he asked me to make coffee, and I’m pretty sure I got that done. When he left, taking all that energy with him, I sat down to try and get my bearings a little. I was tired. Nothing seemed in focus yet. I didn’t remember drinking my coffee and thought it would be lovely if someone would make some more for me, but doing it myself seemed like too much work. It took me till about 10am to feel like I was awake. I realized then I have really, really changed some major things in my life, and my internal clock is one of them.

The hours of my day in Minnesota started early, always. I grew up on a farm which of course means chores. You never hear farmers talking about getting to the chores by 10am, you hear them talk about getting enough done to have coffee and a snack by that time. So naturally I was raised to think that the best time of the day to really get things done is before 10am, it’s all down hill from there. Not that you can’t be productive the rest of the day, but if your list isn’t half done by 10 you aren’t really trying. To do that they get up at 6am full of energy and coffee; milking, plowing and mucking to their little hearts’ content.

When I had children I got up early so that I could get myself ready before I had to get them through breakfast and dressing and out the door. Truly, I needed breakfast and a cup of coffee before tackling those two. (I love you) When they were gone I continued to get up early because my then husband liked to get out of bed 5 minutes before he had to leave the house and I just didn’t want to be in the way of all that stress.

For the last two years of my life in Minnesota I was a baker. Another profession that just knows the best part of the day is before 9am. A bakers job is to drag people out of bed by their nostrils, tempting them with aromas that deliver what they promise. This requires a lot of prep work, and so bakers are up before farmers. Seems impossible, I know, but the baker is probably at work by 4:30am making sure your muffins are hot and crumbly by the time you drag yourself out of bed and down to the coffee shop. They don’t make themselves, you know.

Then I moved to Italy. I didn’t expect to change everything about myself. I assumed that I would remain a morning person because 50 years of getting up that early is a habit not easily changed. Or so I thought. The first few months here I woke up early, but went back to sleep (my grandmother is turning over in her grave) and got up at a more reasonable hour like 7 or 8. I stayed up later of course, because we start getting dinner ready about 8pm. Then, ever so slowly, I stopped waking up at 6am. I should say that I still wake enough to acknowledge that 6am is here, because the business behind our apartment starts running forklifts then, but I no longer wake up and lay there awake. I hear the first few beep-beeps as they back up and then I am already sound asleep again.

This is not an unusual thing for Italy. The whole country gets going just a little later in the morning. Shops close for several hours in the middle of the day for lunch and perhaps a quick nap. People work till 7or 8pm without putting in overtime. Dinner is a leisurely affair that ends the day softly. Maybe not for everyone, but certainly for us. We cook together, we eat together, and we clean up together. No TV, rarely any plans to go out rush to get through dinner so that we can do "just a couple more things" before we go to bed. Why, when tomorrow morning or afernoon will do just as well?

If I have never explained this before, this is exactly one of the reasons I moved here. My body and mind thrived during my visit two years ago on the schedule of late nights followed by lazy mornings. Accompanied frequently by an afternoon nap. My experience this time is exactly the same. I feel good. My body aches less and I have few headaches or other ailments. I just feel better. And before someone says that maybe I’m just getting older and need more sleep I would like to point out that I don’t fall asleep sitting up like Grandma Hauck. So it’s not age but wisdom, I hope. I don’t feel the pressure from hypothetical projects I could be doing if only I would get up early enough. I don’t worry about missing the “best part of the day” because I may in fact be coming to the realization that the best part of my day is the part where I am awake and present, enjoying myself and the people around me. And that, my friends, is quite a conclusion to make on only one vaguely remembered cup of espresso.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Getting Permission

When we last left our heroine at the local Questura (police station, specifically the immigration office) she was staring dumbfounded at the piece of paper she had just spent 6 hours waiting for. It wasn’t the actual permission to stay, but another appointment to visit the same office in a month to pick up her Permesso di Soggiorno, or permission to stay longer than three months in Florence. This appointment was for 25 May at 15.04 (or 3:04pm for those not using the 24 hour clock). Yes, 3:04. Don’t question the government, people. Our heroine spent the month thinking positive thoughts and trying to stay out of trouble. Not very successfully, but trying, and that’s what counts.

She dutifully showed up at the day and time indicated on her paper, only to be told that the office was woefully behind in it’s paperwork and to go home and check the website for the progress on her Permesso. The officer actually did look grieved that he had to send her away empty-handed. Her steadfast companion and interpreter, Leif, discussed the finer points of how, exactly, they should check the website. A lightening fast exchange in Italian yielded less information than one might think. She asked Leif for a summary of the conversation. He looked deeply into her eyes, sighed and said, “I’m not exactly sure how we check this. He said you could use your case number written on the paper here. Or I think we need the Post Office receipt and use one of the numbers from that. He used the word “password” a lot. We’ll try that.”

Not much comfort to our heroine, who has an insane fear of uniforms and was convinced that any day the police would show up at her door and demand her paperwork. When she would be unable to produce it they would escort her, luggage-less, to the airport. There they would ceremoniously cut her Codice Fiscale ( Italian Social Security card) into confetti (NOT sugar covered almonds, but tiny pieces of paper), rip the visa page out of her passport, and be banished from Italy forever. Our heroine can sometimes be a drama queen.

Once home again they started up the computer and tried to figure out exactly what numbers were needed to unlock the mysteries of her case. The website claimed that they could enter her case number (12 characters) or her Post Office receipt number (10 characters). Careful examination of her appointment paper showed that the handwritten case number held only 11 characters. This was not a great way to start. They tried the receipt number but the computer gave them the message that the number they had entered was not in the system. Now, they knew that somewhere inside the Italian government computer system her files existed. She has an (albeit incomplete) case number and an appointment (sort of). They tried the only number left on the receipt, the password. Now I know you are probably thinking, duh! But this password has a hyphen, making it 11 characters. So…do they leave the zero off the front? Leave the last number off ? Use only the numbers and ignore the hyphen? They tried them all, and nothing worked. They gave up in frustration, and decided to try again the next day.

A good night’s sleep always helps, and our heroine cheerfully suggested starting the computer right away to check the website again. Her trusty companion got those lines between his eyebrows that mean either the light is too bright for his eyes, or he disagrees with the idea. This day it meant he disagreed. More to the point, he was fine with her checking the numbers again, but he wasn’t ready for the disappointment and frustration quite yet. She suggested he “go ride a bike” (it may have been said a little sarcastically) while she tried to get some answers from the website. It took a few tries, but finally she found the magic combination of numbers that gave her the message “this case is currently in progress” (the English translation directly from the Italian website). At last, a concrete answer. Not the one she wanted, which was that it was complete, but still, an answer. FYI-she used the password without the hyphen.

Our heroine checked the website religiously, sometimes twice a day, and once on holidays just to be sure that the moment her status came up as “complete” she could make the trip back to the Questura and return home with proof that she is allowed to stay. Fourteen of the longest days on record followed. Fourteen days of getting the same message, “this case is currently in progress.” On the fourteenth day, when the message changed to “this case is complete” she nearly closed the window, not realizing that the message had changed. Yes, a tiny dance of joy ensued. It was a solo dance, but a dance all the same. When her faithful companion returned home that afternoon she gave him the news. He smiled, hugged and kissed her. He looked disappointed that she would go to the Questura the next day without him, but she was so very anxious to have that last piece of Italian paperwork that she insisted on going without him.

The day was dark and rain threatened as she walked across town to the Questura. The closer she got the more her hands started to shake and she was sweating more from nerves than from the heat and humidity of the day. She walked up to a man in uniform, showed him her piece of paper and asked where she should go. He said……..(in Italian) ”you are too late, come back tomorrow between noon and 2,” as he pointed to a piece of paper taped to the wall. She pointed to the time of 15.04 on her paper and he pointed to the paper on the wall yet again. Apparently his piece of paper trumped hers, and the government can change their hours at will. She really wanted to stamp her feet and throw a tiny hissy fit, but she has been told that unless you are really, really important all that kind of behavior gets you is being pushed to the back of the line. So she smiled, swallowed the tears that threatened to spill out in front of him, and left the building.

Once outside she called her faithful companion, who met her there and bought her gelato and generally made her feel better. He asked if she could wait two more days, then he would come with her and make sure she got her paperwork. Of course, she wanted it finished NOW, but the thought of having someone along made her feel better so she agreed. He rode his bike home, while she walked. She got soaked to the skin walking home through 1 liter raindrops with very little airspace between them. It fit her mood, sloshing through calf deep water as the rain pounded down on her umbrella.

The final day for the Questura beamed brightly. OK, not really, but it wasn’t raining and that was a good thing. Our heroine and her trusty companion, Leif, arrived at the Questura and got in line with the rest of the people gathered there to get their Permesso. They waited, and waited and waited till finally the line began to move. One Uniform collected the papers as another Uniform directed them to stand behind a rope. People with strollers were loudly told to move them out of the waiting area and against a wall. No, not that wall, and not in front of the door. They stood like cattle in a pen for awhile. Suddenly the door opened and the head Uniform walked out with a handful of papers. Everyone perked up a bit. Finally, something was happening. He began to call out names. Some got numbers and got to move into the next room, while others were given their paper back and told to return in twenty days. She looked nervously at Leif and asked “They just didn’t check the website, right?” He agreed and said that if they gave her any trouble he would step in and give them “what for” in Italian. (paraphrasing, he probably said he would tell them she checked the website and they had no right to withhold her papers)

They watched anxiously as he called a group of names, disappeared back into the door and reappeared again several minutes later with another handful of papers. He called one name and no one stepped forward. This confused the Uniform. Who would do such a thing? It was an Asian name, and his Italian accent probably made it difficult to recognize. He set the paper on the table and moved to the next name. One man slipped under the rope and reached for the paper on the table. The Uniform slammed his hand down on the paper and shouted (really, he did shout) “Ultimo!!!” The sound of his hand and voice echoed off the high ceilings and stone walls. The whole group took one step back as he glared at them all. It only takes one person to change the balance of power, you know, and he was asserting his absolute power over their futures here in Italy. The poor soul who didn’t recognize their name was now destined to be the very last person to receive a number that day.

He finally called out the name “Roulet, MicheleMarie” and looked suspiciously at her as he handed over her number. The number that leads to the end of this difficult part of the adventure in Italy. She took it before he could change his mind, grabbed her companion’s hand and slid through the doorway into the now familiar waiting room to watch for her number to come up on the monitor. “What is your number? What number are they on?” Leif asked anxiously as she looked for a place to sit. “Mine is F067,” she said, showing it to him “and it looks like there is only one window for those numbers.” He looks at the monitor and his shoulders kind of droop a bit. “They are only on F010,” he said quietly.

She wants to give him words of encouragement like, “they move through these numbers very quickly,” or “it’s fun here, really,” but she can’t. The best she can do is “at least I have a number to wait for, and oh, there’s a place to sit down.” The truth is, when you are there with another person the time goes quicker. There is someone to talk to, to commiserate with, to get angry with. And they did all that and more, as they watched the numbers slowly move toward the magical F067. They shared a sandwich out of a machine, and agreed it was surprisingly good. Surprisingly different for our heroine, who has never had a prosciutto and artichoke sandwich out of a machine before.

Leif claims that our heroine began to tense up about F050, and to visibly vibrate in her chair when people who had already been helped kept going back to the window to ask yet another (probably silly) question. He is exaggerating. At F052 the numbers stopped moving for almost 20 minutes. For no apparent reason. Finally the numbers began to move again. Leif claims, and this may be true, that by now our dainty heroine looked ready to slug anyone daring to try and re-enter the que once they had walked away. Thankfully she reached the window without incident. The woman behind the window took her number and paperwork, found the Permesso, held up a thumb to indicate that as an official of the Italian government she had to verify our heroine’s identity with her thumbprinnt and handed back her passport and Permesso. She didn’t utter a single word, not hello, good afternoon, or goodbye. They hurried from the building, our heroine hugging the precious card to her chest until she could get it safely tucked into her wallet.

So for now our heroine is safe. She has permissions from several different branches of government to remain in Italy until the middle of December. If you heard a tiny rush of wind yesterday afternoon (morning for you Minnesotans) that was Michele, breathing a huge sigh of relief.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

I Think I'm In the Wrong Support Group

Monday night Leif and I had an aperitivo with his Swedish group of friends for Swedish National Day. This is the same group of people who gathered at IKEA for their Santa Lucia celebration and meet several times a year to just get together and speak their mother tongue and compare notes on life here in Italy. It is one of many ex-pat groups from many different countries here in Florence.

I have to admit, it was nice for me to sit in a crowd of people who look like me. Blonde, blue/green eyes, fair skin and a language far removed from Italian. Leif tells me that all the sounds that are used in Italian are also used in Swedish, but I have a hard time hearing anything familiar in the language. Except that if I stop trying to pick out words and listen instead to the sounds I hear Minnesota voices. Yes, Fargo, but also from the Iron Range and Benton County (where I am from) and southern Minnesota. Certain words and phrases take their inflection directly from some ancestral Scandinavian. There just aren’t enough first generation Scandinavian immigrants around anymore for us to hear the similarity. I don’t feel that the Muppet’s Swedish Chef is an appropriate example of the Scandinavian accent.

When they stood up to sing the Swedish National Anthem I realized that they have something I don’t. We may look the same, but I don’t have a group of friends like this. The people I spend most of my time with are not Americans. In fact, I only know about three Americans here and I only see them occasionally. I am surrounded by Italians and Swedes. Most of Leif’s friends are cyclists and Italians. Makes sense, he has been here for nearly seven years. My best friend here is Swedish. I know that she is reaching out to me first and foremost because she and her husband love and respect Leif and want him to be happy. She also understands what it is like to move here and to feel a little strange and lost. She is the person, besides Leif, that I spend the most time with. I am hoping that I prove to be the kind of friend that she will enjoy doing things with.

I think every country has a measure or two in their national anthem that is either too difficult to sing or everyone forgets the words. Americans struggle to reach the high notes when they get to “the rockets red glare” and I think that recent years have shown us that the words must be difficult if pop singers can’t remember them for one performance at the Super Bowl or the World Series. The Swedish group had its’ moment too, when somewhere in the middle they sort of looked sheepishly at each other while kind of humming and la-la-laing their way through one section. I watched them and thought “I don’t have anyone to comfortably share that kind of discomfort with here in Florence.”

I have purposely not sought out any American ex-pat groups or individuals here. I know that I can sometimes be lazy, and if I have a ready made group of friends who speak my language and know the ropes here I know that I won’t try as hard to learn the language, the customs and the little important things like how and where to buy matches, how to buy a train ticket and read the timetables (and then of course how to ask someone in a Trenitalia jacket if this train goes where I want to go, never trust a timetable), and a thousand other little details that are important if I am going to live here. \

It’s possible that somewhere down the road I am going to want and need the familiarity of conversation with someone who speaks American English with all its idioms and shortcuts or that I will need Americans to help me find that one creature comfort that will ease my loneliness. But so far I have found comfort in my love and in the friends I have made here. Not the same kind of comfort I might have sought in Minnesota, but the kind that will help me become the Italian version of Michele. The one who buys her fruits and veggies every morning at the outdoor market. The one who sleeps in and stays up late. The one who is learning to love wine and pasta and Italian bread. The one who walks around the city and draws every day, just because she can. The one who will continue to pretend she is Swedish and go to the Swedish group parties, which are probably way more fun than the American ones anyway.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Living Left-handed: But Why? The Darn Cast is Off...

It has been a slow process getting my arm to work normally again. I know, it’s only been a few weeks since I got the cast off, but I feel like I should be better at using my right hand by now. I am afraid I am becoming left-handed. According to several people I know, being left-handed is the way to go. They may be a little biased, life long left-handers tend to be on this topic, but I think I am starting to agree with them. It’s just easier, even though it isn’t exactly easy, to use my left hand. But I keep training with my right hand in the hopes that I will wake up one day able to do all those little things I used to take for granted.

Mornings are great! I try to go for a ride on my bike most mornings. I am slowly working my way up to longer times on the bike because all those muscles were frozen in one position for three weeks and it is taking awhile for them to loosen up and start to work again. Every morning I try to stay out a little longer than the day before. Today I started to add time, distance and different surfaces to my ride. It’s one thing to ride a long time on a smooth, pedestrian free surface and quite another to ride for just a short time on an uneven surface or gravel while swerving, stopping and changing speeds to avoid pedestrians, dogs, other bikes and scooters. Maybe the occasional small car trying to get to an impossible parking space. You just never know what you will encounter here, even on the bike lane.

For the rest of the day I try to use my right hand like I normally would. Which sounds pretty simple, I know, but in practice it is actually not that easy sometimes. By the end of the day I have to remind myself that I am right handed and should be eating with my right hand, or pouring, or whatever. It’s been a little frustrating to find that my body just doesn’t always do what I expect it to. Like when I go to scratch my nose and poke myself in the eye instead. Or when I try to brush the hair back from my eyes and miss completely. My hand ends up somewhere above and in front of my left shoulder batting away at nothing. Sometimes when I brush my teeth the toothbrush somehow jumps out of my mouth and scrubs the outside of my cheek instead.

Dinners have become “the meal I need to get through.“ The food is always great, the wine spectacular, but my dexterity with the fork and knife at the end of the day leaves something to be desired. I’ll get about halfway through my meal and suddenly the fork will stop part of the way to my mouth and just sort of hang there in mid-air. Like my hand forgot what it was doing. I stare at it for a second, wondering what just happened. I try envisioning the fork continuing its journey to my mouth, but that just never seems to work. I refuse to use my left hand to guide my right hand and fork to my mouth, because that’s just embarrassing, so I have begun to resort to the “air traffic controller” method of finishing my meal. I talk it in, sort of like all those airplane disaster movies in the 70’s and 80’s.

I tell myself to remain calm, that no one has noticed that my fork has been sitting in the same position for roughly a minute. I remind myself that I have done this before, countless times. That small children master this skill at an early age and if they can so can I. I stare at the fork and think at it loudly. “Move (slowly if you must) towards my face. You are aiming for the mouth which is located between the ears and below the nose. I have faith in you, you can do this. Just slowly…there you go! A little to the left, remember between the ears, not in the ears. Here’s the tricky part now, tilt the fork just slightly…Not Too Much…and turn it slightly so the pointy parts go into the mouth first.” By now my hand is shaking from the effort (and maybe just a little bit from nerves) but I am proud to say that usually I get it right, and while it’s obvious to others that something is going on, they graciously ignore what’s happening at my plate. This is repeated as many times as needed to empty the plate.

I know it will take time. I am just not as patient as I could be I guess. I am getting a little tired of seeing my hand and wondering whose hand that is, because if it were my hand it would be doing that thing I was thinking at this moment instead of what it is doing, which is usually nothing. I wonder if this is how the bionic woman felt the first time she tried to eat with her bionic arm. It would make me feel tons better if you would just smile and say “yes.” Gives me hope for tomorrow, when I hope to tackle soup. I’m thinking a drop cloth and a raincoat…what do you think?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Playing the Blues

Last night we had dinner some friends of Leif’s from Sweden. They are visiting Florence for a few days and invited us to join them for dinner their first night here. It was a beautiful, warm evening. Perfect for sitting out on the street eating dinner and learning about each other. This being Florence, there were several musicians who wandered through the street hoping for tips. One gentleman in particular caught our attention because he was singing in Spanish (not the perfect choice for Italy) and every time he finished a song he would give himself a standing ovation, complete with thunderous applause and shouts of “Brava!” We all laughed a little at this. Me not so much, because I know what it is like to play to a room that is ignoring your performance.

I remembered that man again this morning, when again I woke up feeling restless and uneasy and just a little blue. I have been trying to figure out what exactly is bothering me, and was just about ready to put it down to one of the stages every person moving to a new place goes through. But when I thought about that man wildly applauding himself because no one else would, I realized what I was feeling.

Today I realized that, as happy as I am and as fun as life is right now, there are things that I miss. It’s normal. I knew to expect this moment and still it surprised me with how strongly it affects me. I miss conversation that happens quickly, changes direction on a dime and includes phrases that don’t need to be explained. Not thoughtless talking really, but conversation that focuses the thought on content instead of structure. I talk about my feelings and thoughts less and less lately because it can become complicated and I don’t think I explain myself well enough to be understood by people here.

I miss my friends and family. I really am just a mouse click or phone call away, yet with time I feel people moving on, while I feel like I am treading water. I miss being able to call a friend and ask if they have time for coffee and a chat. It took me forty-eight years to gather my small circle of close friends, I am completely overwhelmed at the thought of trying to replace you all in only six months.

Most of all, I miss being needed. I have spent my life taking care of others and there is no one here who needs me. No one, old friend or new, asks to discuss their latest work or personal decisions, there are no short e-mails celebrating a good grade or even to complain about the traffic on the way home. It is my nature to nurture (say that three times fast) and with no one except myself to care for I feel a little lost and without purpose.

So, just for today, I feel like that man outside the restaurant. I feel like even in a crowd I am the only person who sees and hears me, and if I don’t applaud for myself I will cease to exist.

Tomorrow I will feel better.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Gravity Sucks: But I Can't Avoid it So I'll Learn to Live With It

Today I got back on my bike for a short little ride around the local park. I need to start riding again. Walking is a great workout, but I want more. I like the wind in my face, I like seeing things that are too far to walk to. Did I mention that I like the wind in my face? I think I was a dog in a previous life…one that liked to run a lot or maybe ride in the back of a pick up with my head sticking out the side. On the practical side, the sooner I am back to my pre-fall shape, the sooner I can train to be a bike tour guide. I would love to have another way to earn some money.

I think the saying goes, if you fall off a horse get right back on. I couldn’t do that with the Jurassic Park model of my cast, and I don’t think it would have been safe for anyone else either. But I have had the cast off for a little over a week and thought I should do at least a small ride to get over the post-fall jitters.

It has been over a month now since the accident, so my bike has just been sitting in the living room collecting dust. Leif took it out on the terrace while I got ready and oiled the chain and checked out the brakes and tires and such. He will probably deny this, but I’m pretty sure I saw him cleaning all the dust and dust bunny remnants off the frame and spokes. He likes a clean bike, I’m pretty sure he would have really liked to actually wash it with soap and water.

I tease him sometimes about his passion for cycling, but I shouldn’t. Yes, he really loves more than almost anything to be on a bike. But he also wants the people around him to enjoy cycling and this morning he was very patient and thoughtful. He knew I was nervous about getting back on my bike after such a hard fall and spending so long off the bike. So he took the time to check everything over and then we walked our bikes to the gas station so he could fill the tires for me. He took one last look into my eyes and asked if I was ready.

Well, no…but I said nonchalantly, “Sure, let’s go.” It was like riding with my own personal body guard. He rode directly in front of me and pretty much cleared a path. For this I was grateful. Typically on any ride in Florence there are certain things you need to watch out for. Dogs standing 10 feet away from their owners, but still attached to a leash that blocks the bike lane. Elderly shoppers dragging one of those rolling shopping bags with one errant wheel that throws it randomly around the sidewalk. Groups of joggers that part like the Red Sea for the aforementioned elderly, but refuse to yield to bikers the use of the bike lane. Tiny bikers-in-training who get off balance, over-correct and veer into your path with a look of terror on their face while their parents glare at you as if you planned to run their child over. Anyone of any age texting while walking.

These are the things he protected me from today…although it was threatening to rain so there weren’t as many people on the street as usual. We rode slowly at first. It was a good thing he was there to watch the people and traffic for me, because today I spent a lot of time watching the road in front of me. I broke my elbow, but the my hand and wrist were trapped in a strange position in the cast as well so there are a lot of movements that difficult and/or painful yet. So I didn’t want to hit any holes or sticks or rocks or anything that would jar my hand and arm too hard this first time out.

Leif led the way around the park, dinging his bell to warn pedestrians to move and choosing the smoothest places for me to ride. We made it home without incident, and I am already excited to get out again tomorrow or the next day for a little longer ride. Maybe even on the road….I love to live dangerously.

It’s a pretty uneventful ending to the story of my broken elbow, but you know what? I think that’s the best possible ending I could ask for.