Monday, September 26, 2011

Is olive oil romantic?

I really need some sort of a mentor for this dating thing. Other women get flowers or jewelry or other fancy (and therefore expensive) gifts. How do they do it? Is is a question of picking the right man, or is it an expectation that she has from the start and makes sure she gets it? And how exactly does she go about getting it? I'm baffled by this because the gifts I get are very, very different.

This is what he has given me so far
(that I haven't already eaten)
My boyfriend brings me olive oil. Sometimes he brings other food like fancy pastas, herbed salts, or sauces, sometimes chocolate which is at least within the realm of romantic gift giving. But usually it's olive oil.

Not that there's anything wrong with olive oil, I love it. We have it for every meal in some way. Usually with a nice piece of schiaccata or some other kind of bread. Always on the pasta. For those of you thinking "Oh my God, she must be kidding. She doesn't eat bread and pasta for every meal!" yes, we really do eat that much bread and pasta. And we eat it with olive oil.

The olive oil here is wonderful. Some are spicy and some are mild. Some are filtered, some aren't. There are organic oils. And it seems that everyone produces olive oil. Vineyards typically sell olive oil as well as wine. Every house has at least a few olive trees around it. If you are fortunate you have enough olive trees to keep your family in olive oil for the year, with maybe enough left over to give a little to special friends. Everyone's oil tastes different which is part of the reason he keeps bringing me new bottles. Part of the flavor comes from the soil the trees grow in and part of it is the age of the trees. Part of the flavor comes from the press that's used to bring the oil out of the fruit. Filtering the oil changes the flavor too.

Everything I own has had olive oil dripped on it at some time. My computer, my ipod, my shoes, my purse. Every article of clothing has an olive oil stain on it somewhere. It's entirely possible that I have started sweating olive oil.

Maybe he's better at buying gifts for me than I'm giving him credit for. I do love olive oil and even though there's lots of it here, the good stuff isn't cheap. I just hope I don't become like Pavlov's dogs and start salivating every time he comes home and his bike bag is extremely heavy. Because I know it's either olive oil or wine. The bigger his smile is, the more likely it is that I am getting another bottle of olive oil. Yup, I think I need to add olive oil to my list of extremely romantic gifts to receive.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Music is a language without words

Tonight I went to a Swedish choir concert held in an old catholic church in the center of Florence. Sounds a little conflicted, I know. It looked like it too. All those Scandinavian looking people wearing white with pink and lavender scarves lined up in front of the alter next to a statue of the Virgin Mary while a devout (we'll give her the benefit of the doubt) woman lit candles to Mary next to the alto section. People in the  audience looked at the confessional booths and wondered what the heck they were for? I think the couple in front of me told their child that's where bad little kids have to sit. Applause was you clap because they were so good or do you not because after all you're in church? The group seemed to feel that no more than ten seconds of discreet applause was appropriate. Obviously a Protestant crowd.

They were very good. I didn't understand a single word they sang, because they didn't sing the "thank you, goodbye" song, the "I love you" song, or the "hugs and kisses" song, which is the extent of my vocabulary. Oops, I forgot I also know "cinnamon bun" but they didn't sing that song either. But you know what? I didn't need to understand the words, because the harmonies and rhythms were pure protestant. I could have been in any church in Minnesota listening to the church choir there. They were sounds I have been listening to and making since I was born.

Most of the women looked like lunch ladies from small town central Minnesota schools or possibly home ec teachers, except for the eighty-nine year old woman. She just looked old. The six men who were talked into joining the group looked like librarians. But they all sang beautifully, and with great emotion. More than I would have thought possible from Swedes. In this small group of people, complete strangers from a strange country, I saw the people from my church family in Minnesota. I saw Marg and Marlys reaching every high note and glorying in the sound that came back to them from the vaulted ceilings. They had their own tenor equivalent of Jim Johnson (whoa, he might have actually been a Jim Johnson!) and their accompanist was Aggie through and through.

And I cried.

Silly, I know. I don't know why I cried, except that it reminded me of life before all the big changes. It's kind of like remembering something so very sweet and knowing that it had to end but sad that it did at the same time. Like remembering Christmas when you were six and all the grandparents were still alive and it was a great day. Except I wouldn't want to be six again. And I didn't really heaving sobs, heck I didn't even need a tissue. More like misty eyed, really. But I'm glad I went.

PS Dad, I think that there is only one textbook on conducting techniques for choir directors. It has been translated so well that Swedish directors look exactly like directors from Minnesota. And you would have loved the organ here. They have regular organ concerts (glad we don't live close to that church) and one set of pipes is laid horizontally across the choir balcony and has bells like trumpets. He played part of the Hallelujah Chorus before we left. Yikes. Of course the Swedish choir started singing along. You would have too. It's hard to resist.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lessons learned

It's funny. If I hadn't moved here I would never (really, never) started babysitting. And watching someone else's child has given me a lot of insight.

As a mom who worked outside the home, I spent most of my time at home getting ready to be gone the next day. I let myself be convinced that the money I earned would be appreciated by my children more than my presence would. And that it was reasonable to fit them in between meetings and housework. I rarely had the chance to focus on them. I was always thinking three steps ahead of the moment we were in.

Now, when I watch Mia I don't think of anything except her and what we are doing at that precise moment. I wish I could have been my children's babysitter sometimes, instead of trying to be super mom all the time.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Back in the saddle again.

Ok, no. I didn't get hurt. I've been on my bike riding around town for errands and work. But I haven't been out on a long, recreational ride in a long time. It has been in the 90's to 100's consistently for most of August and I just didn't want to ride in that kind of heat. But the weather has changed and I'm ready to ride again.

As you may know, I am tutoring 4 little girls in English. This isn't happening in Florence, but in a town about 20k from my home. I have been taking the train because it seemed the easiest way to get there. But I started thinking about it. It costs me 3,80 euro to take the train there and back. Not a huge amount, but I do need  to count my pennies. I already have to ride my bike to the train station. I can see the bike road for most of the train ride. Piece of cake.

Of course I only had to mention to Leif that I was going to try riding to my tutoring address to see how long it would take and if it would be possible to ride instead of take the train, and there we were....riding off to Lastra a Signa. I put on my little bike shorts (it's not a long way there, but we have to get back too), filled up our water bottles and we headed out early while the weather was still cool.

Most of the ride I have done before because I ride to Signa pretty regularly, just for fun. (I can't believe I actually said that.) Lastra a Signa is just over the river south of Signa, so I figured it couldn't be too hard to find the house where I tutor once I found the bridge over the river. I love it when I'm right. In a town where there are maybe three street signs I was able to take us right to it.

(slight pause while I give myself another high five for finding my way around the countryside)

Of course we didn't go back the way we came. Leif has been riding here for seven years and likes to take different ways to the same place. we went to find our way back to Florence on the south side of the river. Instead of the simple gravel road along the river we followed a twisted path of one way streets through a series of little towns outside Florence. I haven't been on this side of the river much, so it was fun. At one point I was a little nervous. You know how in Minnesota they took a lot of the old rail beds and made them into bike trails? There's one of those here too, except that the bed is only about a meter wide and the drop off on either side is incredibly steep (I would say cliff-like, really) and the bottom is a long, long ways down. At the end of a ride I am never at my most graceful, so even though the ride was flat and very smooth, I was happy to be off that path and onto something that seemed a little closer to the ground. You know what I mean.

As experiments go it was  fairly successful. I don't think I'll be taking the alternate route back on the south of the river as the twists and turns will certainly get me lost and then I'd spend the whole day trying to get back to Florence. It was a great ride and I have decided that I could just as well take the hour that I would normally take cycling, riding the train and walking and instead just ride straight to their house. Until it starts raining in November. Then I am absolutely taking the train and carrying my umbrella, just in case.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Breaking news!!! After months of being pretty much shunned by the Elderly Ladies of the Blessed Esselunga (my supermarket of choice, because it's close) one of those adorable older ladies spoke directly to me today.

This is  BIG.

Typically they will cross to the other side of the aisle if they see me coming, clutching their purses tightly to their chests and squinting up at me in what I'm certain is the modern version of the legendary "Evil Eye". If I surprise one coming around a corner they get this terrified look on their face, throw their hands up in the air and back up as quickly as an eighty-year-old woman can. They don't actually shriek, because it's a public place, but they sure look like they want to. Standing next to me in the checkout lane appears to be torture for them. They kinda twitch. Their eyes are always darting from one line to the next, hoping to find another lane moving slightly quicker and offering them the chance to move away from me. If they drop something and I pick it up for them, they take it (almost between two fingers) and seriously look like they are considering telling the cashier that they don't want the item anymore. It's tainted; it's been touched by a foreigner.

If only I were as dangerous as they make me out to be. Maybe I am, if occasionally riding without my helmet makes me dangerous. Or running with scissors.

Today one of those tiny white haired ladies smiled up at me and asked me to hand her a carton of yogurt that she couldn't reach. Me. When there were plenty of tall(ish) Italians standing right next to her. Then she said thank you and went on her way, without sanitizing the carton or anything.

Those of you thinking she's either blind or senile can just keep it to yourself. Don't harsh my buzz, people. I feel good.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Checking under the hood

You know how when someone gets a new car (in rural Minnesota) and all the men go out and stand around the car, regardless of the weather and pop the hood? They kick tires and point at things, and eventually the proud owner (and ONLY  the proud owner) gets in and starts the engine. After a moment of breathless anticipation he gently revs the engine and they all nod their heads and look knowingly at each other. They talk about carburetors and heads and horse power and torque, comparing this little gem to every other car they have ever owned or that a good friend has owned since they first got their drivers license. This stops only when it starts to rain  or snow, or dinner is on the table. This is also true for tractors, combines, motorcycles and lawnmowers. Anything with a motor.

On Sunday I witnessed the Italian cycling version of this phenomenon. I mean , I expected to see this with cars. Italy has some awesome cars. I just didn't think that it was possible to have this same sort of communal ritual around a bicycle. It has no motor. I was wrong.

I was near the finish line at a cycle race waiting for Leif to finish his 170 kilometers. It was interesting watching the different riders as they came in to the finish. It was a nasty, hot and humid day. I would have said, no way am I riding over a hundred miles today, but thousands of men and women in Tuscany disagreed with me. Crazy. Anyway, as I'm watching people come into the finish I noticed a group of men gathered at one side of the course around a bike. They were pretty close to me and once I started watching them I knew what I was watching. The "checking under the hood" ritual.

The owner stood  on the right side of the bike with one hand protectively on the handlebars and the other on the saddle. He looked as proud as a man who has just finished riding 170k in 100F temperatures can look. Eight men gathered around him, not exactly holding their hands behind their backs, but looking like they really wanted  to touch the bike but knew they couldn't. They complimented him on the new bike and started to ask questions. He answered a few questions and the crowd looked skeptical. I don't have enough Italian to tell you what was said, and of course I had to appear that I wasn't actually watching them, so I couldn't hear everything that was said. Not that I needed to. I'm sure it was a conversation that revolved around derailers and torque and other technical bike things. Weight is important for road bikes and he was telling them his weighed very few grams. Grams are so important in fact that one man told me he needed a bell for city riding, but couldn't put one on because it would add a few grams to his total weight and he just wasn't willing to do that. But I digress...the crowd didn't believe this bike was as light as the owner was claiming.

Finally, in an effort to convince them that he wasn't exaggerating about how great the bike was, he invited one of the men to touch it. The chosen one entered the sacred circle reverently, that space where a rider mounts his bike. He tentatively stretched his hands out. They hovered over the bike, one hand floating above the handle bars and the other behind the saddle. Slowly he brought his hands to the bike and gently, like holding a newborn baby, he lifted it off the ground. His face glowed as he shook his head in disbelief, looking at the crowd as if to say "It's true. It's weightless." He lowered the bike slowly down to the ground and waited till the owner had a firm grip on it before letting go. Finally, the ice broken, everyone got a chance to approach the bike and hold it for a few precious seconds. Hushed conversation became louder as they all complimented the rider on his bike. Everything on the bike was beautiful...the frame, the saddle, the brakes, the gears. The owner stood next to his bike, looking alternately like he was the happiest man on earth or like he could fall down at any moment from fatigue.

It was kind of comforting to watch...just like home except that it was a bike, and it was in Italian, and there was absolutely no chance of rain, and no one called us in for dinner...but it felt like home.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lust, because "like" just isn't a strong enough word

No, not the kind of lust you're thinking. Get your minds out of the gutter, people.

A couple of days ago I was riding in a train and watching the girl in the seat facing me get her brand new handbag ready to use. I want her bag. It's beautiful. It's far too big, leather (and  therefore far too expensive) and far too blue. But I want it. This is unusual for me. I have always been a little purse girl. The smaller the better. I hate carrying the thing around. I love clothes with pockets. To be so attracted to an overly large (capacious, commodious, one step down from a steamer trunk) handbag is unlike me. I lust after this purse. I wanted to ask her where she got it, if I could hold it for just a moment to see how it felt. I was mentally filling it with my own things: wallet, keys, drawing stuff, spare inner tube, kitchen sink. I felt possessed for just a few seconds. Kinda scary.

It's very Italian, this big purse thing. And now, for the first time, I get it (sort of). Like many Florentine women I bike and walk everywhere. Even more women ride scooters. What they don't have is a back seat and a trunk to throw their things into, allowing them to carry a teeny-tiny purse. Like elegantly dressed pack horses, they must carry everything on their backs. The lucky ones have a small basket somewhere on their bike, but there is still the problem of where to put the stuff while they run into a store. Hence the large bags I see everywhere.

This troubles me because I thought I had reached a point in my life where things didn't really matter anymore. The purse that holds my wallet, keys, phone and nothing more should be adequate, but isn't. I rarely carry it. I'm almost always carrying something else, or going to pick up something. Leif has small backpack I use when he isn't using it, and I have a ginormous backpack I could carry. So I don't neeeeeeed a beautiful, big bag. Yet I want it. I could rationalize this by saying that it's high time I stopped looking like a tourist and started looking like a resident. I have been here almost a year now. Did I mention that this bag was not just large, that it is also incredibly beautiful?

But it seems like a slippery slope. It starts out innocently enough. The bag is necessary because I need to carry things. As long as I have to have the bag, it might as well be big enough for groceries and beautiful to boot. Then, to go with the beautiful bag, there will be shoes, then pretty clothes...and suddenly I won't be my Levi's and hoodie wearing self anymore. I'll have (gasp) outfits. I'll "do" my hair. Friends and family  won't recognize me anymore. The mind boggles at the potential changes purchasing a single bag could produce.

It's been a couple of days and the lust is still there. I have a plan. I'll start my usual shopping practice of looking around for what I want, waiting patiently for the perfect purse (at the perfect price) to appear. As this is usually a four to six month process, and I am only here for another three months, I think I'm safe. I'll either lose interest in the project or run out of time to find the right bag.

It's a win-win situation. If I don't get it I will have been strong and held to the principles I was raised with. If I get it I will have the most beautiful and useful bag I've ever owned. Tomorrow I start shopping.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Back to, not me.

Today I had my second session with my tutoring group. Now, before everyone gets all excited thinking I have a group of students that I will be bringing into fluency in just a few short months you should probably know that they are a group of four little girls ages six and seven. They are not already English speakers who need a little polish put on their skills, but kids who are still learning to write their own names. This is a long term project.

They are absolutely adorable. Our first meeting a month ago was a fun, get-to-know each other kind of time. Thank goodness. Two of them were missing their top front teeth. I never knew until that day just how many sounds use the tongue against the front teeth. Add to that their difficulty with the "th" sound (it doesn't exist in the Italian language) and you can probably start to understand how much fun we had. Spit everywhere, and when you're six spit is funny.

It's a month later and their teeth have grown in. "Th" is still a struggle, but the spit factor has been reduced significantly (not gone, just reduced). Maybe I should clarify that when I say I'm tutoring English, I am not teaching them to read and write. I am providing pronunciation. As a mother tongue English speaker, and even better as an American, my value is in teaching them to speak fluently using American inflections and phrases. They will learn to read and write English at school. In fact, part of our time was spent finishing their homework as school starts next week. You heard me right. They have homework over the summer and these tiny girls who are still learning to read and write Italian are doing English homework.

It's hard to believe that they're starting English in their first or second year of public school, isn't it? The ubiquitous "they" say that language is easiest to learn at an early age. I suppose that must be the reasoning. It's too bad Minnesota keeps pulling money out of education. I have a feeling that if Americans had to learn another language, if they had to express themselves in another language and custom, that their perspective on a whole lot of issues might become less narrow. More flexible. More thoughtful. Or that could be just wishful thinking.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

bikes vs pedestrians

It's finally cooling off here. Good thing too. People were getting a little cranky. Not me, of course. But I noticed a few things you might enjoy hearing about.

I was walking home from the market late last week, when it was still hot, and there was an older woman walking ahead of me carrying a bag of groceries. As we neared a corner an even older man slowly came around the corner on his bicycle. Unfortunately for him, he was riding on the sidewalk and the woman was feeling a little territorial about her path home.

He wasn't riding fast (I think I was walking faster than he was riding) but she looked him straight in the eye and told him that he shouldn't be riding there. She may have even shook a finger at him, but if she didn't it was certainly implied. It took him a few feet to stop, at which time her turned and said something sharply to her. I believe it was that he was hardly moving, he never even came close to her, and the street was not safe for anyone to ride on.

(You'll have to forgive my horrible translation at this point. They were using words I don't know, some I probably shouldn't and they were speaking quickly. But you'll get the gist of it anyway.)

Before this she had given every impression that she was in a hurry to get home with her food, but now she walked back towards him (past me) and started waving her free arm around, pointing at the bike lane on the other side of the street and clearly telling him that if he didn't want to be on the street he had options that didn't endanger the lives of innocent women and children.

By this time he had turned his bike around to face her and leaned on the handlebars, apparently ready for a long discussion. He told her that he was going to the store on this side of the street. Why on earth would he cross the street, ride one block and have to cross again? Really, it made no sense at all. His argument was sound, even if the law was on her side.

By now I was standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change and honestly kind of hoping it didn't. Listening as their argument became more and more passionate was riveting. You would think they were discussing something really important like politics or wine.

They were now face to face and he stood up...his argument was falling apart and he needed his hands to talk properly. I couldn't really hear the discussion anymore over the traffic noise. She continued to talk at him, occasionally lifting her hands up to emphasize a point. He started out looking angry. Suddenly his hands reached out with palms upraised as if to say "huh?", his shoulders shrugged and his look of confusion was Oscar worthy. A few seconds later (she never stopped talking I don't think) his shoulders dropped and his face softened. No, he didn't feel sorry about anything, he just felt bad for her that she couldn't understand his simple need to ride on the sidewalk. A man's gotta ride where a man's gotta ride, and all that.

As the light changed and I started across the street she turned away from him with a disgusted look and walked around the corner muttering to herself. If there really is something to the idea of an evil eye curse that man better watch himself for the next little while. As she rounded the corner he lifted his face and his hands to heaven as if to say, why God? Why me? Why today?

Later that same day I was walking down a street that has a bike lane. About a block away I could see an older (at least in her 70's) woman coming down the bike lane on  her bike. Right there she gets points for riding her bike after the age many American people decide it's just too dangerous. Suddenly from between two parked cars an even older elderly (elderlier?) woman stepped into the bike lane with her companion next to her.

It was like watching a movie in slow motion. The woman on the bike started using her bike bell instantly...and constantly, from half a block away. The walking woman had to walk to the corner (4 meters) in the bike lane because she couldn't step up the curb from the bike lane to the sidewalk. The companion tried to pull the walking woman over closer to the side of the bike lane but she seemed reluctant to go (or she just moves that slow. I'm going with the second choice.) As the riding woman got closer she started to talk (loudly) to the two walking women. Walking woman couldn't hear what she was saying so the companion was repeating everything riding woman was saying. Walking woman seemed to understand and sympathize with riding woman's plight, but she remained about dead center in the bike lane. Maybe she was blind as well as deaf.

The seconds ticked by as I watched the bicycle slowly overtake the pedestrian. Would she be able to reach the side of the bike lane in time? Would riding woman slow down? Wait, she can't because she's barely moving fast enough to stay upright as it is. At last the bike was even with the walker and whew, it was a squeaker but she got by. Walking woman continued down the bike lane apparently unconcerned about her brush with death. Riding woman rode past me, muttering to herself about crazy old people. Really she did.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Looking At Life Through Wine Colored Glasses: Today

It is finally cool enough to type again. Whew…it’s been hot. Between 90F and 100F for several weeks, sometimes even hotter. But it has started to cool off again and so I can bear to sit and write. Now, where was I?

Oh yes. Why, I suppose you are asking yourself, did I take all that time telling you about my history with wine? Because you need to know where I came from in order to understand where I am now. I came from the land of beer and milk and soda pop. I am living in Italy, land of wine (and food and shoes…)

I don’t know what I expected when I came here. Maybe to have wine a couple of times a week. I mean, from my experience wine is a special occasion drink, not something you have every day. Naturally, the first few weeks I was here I assumed that we were still celebrating my arrival and that explained all that wine. By the time I realized that the time for celebrating was over and the wine was still there for every lunch and dinner it had become a habit that I enjoyed.

It’s a good thing that I enjoy it. You see, I am in love with a man who enjoys wine so much he moved from Sweden to Italy to be closer to the wine. He studied for two years to become a sommelier and did it in Italian, not Swedish.. When he isn’t cycling he is tasting and writing about Italian wines for a company exporting wines to Sweden.

In fact, our apartment doesn’t have a living room, it has a cycle room where he keeps his bikes and cycle clothes and tools, and all the reference books and maps he uses for cycle and wine trips with clients. It is also the room where we keep our personal stash of wine, not to be confused or mixed with the work wine. Those bottles that he tastes for export are kept in our refrigerator. He has generously allowed me one shelf for food. The rest of the fridge is devoted to wine.

How strange is it that someone with my background, essentially a person who drank wine only when there was absolutely no other beverage available, now finds that lunch isn’t quite the same without a glass of wine? That I can’t remember the last time I had dinner without wine? It’s Twilight Zone strange.

So far this year he has tasted over 70 wines from all over Italy and I have tried almost that many with him (they don‘t send just a glassful for him to try, you know. They send a whole bottle and I must help.) The vast majority of these are not just ok wines; they are good wines. Some are excellent. Some are so good I’m actually sad when the bottle is empty. I have no idea how much they cost…they are given to him to taste and write about so we don’t buy them. He does tell me that I have expensive taste, that the wines I like the most are usually the more expensive wines.

Every morning I ask him what to buy for dinner, because he knows what food goes with the wine we will have with dinner. And that, my friends, is the great part of this experience. It isn’t that I’m eating in Italy, although that is pretty great. It isn’t the wine and it isn’t the food. It’s eating food carefully chosen to complement the wine while watching the sky change from the bright blue of day to the neon blue of dusk to the dark velvet sky of night that make each evening special. I get to share the experience with a passionate and loving person. I am truly blessed.

He says he is spoiling me and it’s true. I am forever ruined. I can never go back to Boone‘s Farm. Here’s hoping I never have to.