Sunday, June 23, 2013

A new wardrobe

Almost three years ago I came here with two suitcases and started this Italian life. A year later I visited home and came back with another suitcase of clothes. So essentially I've lived in Italy but dressed for the most part like an American. Not just an American, but a Midwesterner. Casual, middle of the road, planned to offend no one and to provide optimum comfort. Jeans, t-shirts, shorts and few dresses/skirts for (really) special occasions.  Naturally I brought running shoes, durable (read so ugly and super comfortable) sandals and hiking boots.

Because Florence is a tourist town this worked for me on some level. In the center I blended with the other ten thousand tourists walking around town and in our own neighborhood I was probably just some lost tourist. Nothing to excite comment unless I ran into our immediate neighbors who like me but often look at me strangely. Perhaps wondering if we own a mirror.

A few weeks ago we had company staying with us overnight and as I was getting the bed ready for them I noticed that there was a tear in the bottom sheet. Then as I was stuffing the pillow into the pillowcase my hand went through the material. Since we'd gotten those sheets as part of the "furnished" agreement on our apartment I wasn't surprised necessarily. They were pretty used when we moved in and we demoted them to guest use as soon as we could get new linens for our bed. (Note to our guests: We love having you stay with us, but sensible resource allocation means we get the good sheets. Yours may be used but are guaranteed clean when you use them.) It took a little scrambling on my part to take the linens we had and make them appear to be a carefully thought out bedroom suite but we managed. I think this was the universe warning me that this was the beginning of the end for my wardrobe.

I've been very gentle with my clothes since coming here. Many were used when I bought them and most of them were purchased years before I moved to Florence. So even though it was inevitable, I was still surprised one day when I put my hand in the pocket of my favorite capris and felt the material tear. A split seam I can fix. Easy. A tear in material that's become as thin as tissue paper is pretty much the end of those pants. I sighed and put them back in the closet. I can still wear them at home.

This is where my upbringing shows. Clothes are only thrown away when they no longer hang on the body. A few cosmetic problems or unsightly stains simply means you have work clothes. I can't be the only person who grew up with church clothes which eventually became school clothes which eventually became play/work clothes which then became rags or part of a quilt. A garment was only thrown away once it ceased to be identifiable as clothing. I still clean my flute with one sleeve from my dad's worn out flannel jammies.

Most of my t-shirts are close to transparent and so misshapen that I look strange in them. Like I'm wearing someone else's clothes. My jeans are much the same. I'm actually afraid to wear one pair at all. I keep them a the bottom of the pile as a back up, although things would have to go horribly awry, like the rest of my clothes being abducted by aliens or being eaten by moths, for me to wear them in public. My camisole straps have lost their elasticity and quite frankly look like something my grandmother would wear under her work clothes.

Those clothes that are still strong in their fabric fit strangely now. My body has changed shape here. I have no idea if I've lost weight because I don't weigh myself, but clothes that used to fit nicely hang different now. Clothes that were just a little big threaten to slide lower than they should or gap in embarrassing places. Then the final straw...I was putting on my very favorite all-purpose denim shirt when my finger went through the sleeve. I was distraught. It was no longer the beginning of the end anymore. It was the end.

This week I decided I needed to shop for clothes. Italian clothes.

That's right. I'm gonna go native and embrace my inner Italian (FYI I'm not in the least Italian). It was a tough decision. I mean, it shouldn't have been. I live here, not in Minnesota. I should dress like they do here, not like they do in Minnesota. If I wanted to stay with what I know and once was comfortable with I could just find more jeans (but in Sweden because I'm built like a Swede, not like an Italian) and scour the vintage stores and markets for "American" clothes. Levis, American Eagle Outfitters, heck I've even found Target clothes on occasion. So it's doable for me to maintain my American persona while living here, but is that really what I should do?

I plan to live here for a long time. I don't think I can be a visitor forever. I think along with learning the language learning to express myself through my clothes is a good way to start becoming Italian. It was inevitable, really. I've been watching the women here. The concept of appropriate clothing is completely different. It's not unusual to see a woman in a mini skirt, patterned hose and stilletos from the back and be impressed. It's even more impressive (to me anyway) when you then see her from the front and realize she's not a twenty or thirty something woman but someone in her sixties. They're confident and composed women at every age, it seems. I want to have just a little bit of that confidence and just a smidgen more of that inappropriateness.

So I went shopping this week. I bought things I would never, ever buy or wear in Minnesota but am looking forward to wearing here. And, because it's me, they were mostly on sale or used from the outdoor market. I like to get the most bang for my euro-type buck. It was hard to put aside the criteria I've used for shopping my entire life. Most of my criteria I'll admit revolved around what I thought other people would think when seeing me, which is ridiculous. At fifty something years old I really should let go of the peer pressure thing and wear things that make me feel as confident as those Italian women look.

I bought silky flowy things and things that make me feel pretty. I bought lots of white. I bought things that fit closely and things that are short. I'm reorganizing my closet (come on, you don't really think I could throw all those almost still pretty much mostly good clothes away, did you?) so all the stuff I've just bought and the stuff I've been afraid to wear are at the front. No saving them for church or special occasions. Or perhaps I just need to start considering each day as the special occasion that it is.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Revolution of a cyclist: Don't try this at home

Just when I think there are no new ways for me to screw up I find myself doing things I shouldn't. My ride last Friday highlighted this for me. But there's more to this story than my stupidity (fueled mostly by my inexperience); there's also some good stuff.

I was so excited to ride on Friday. Leif was going to ride with me. It's not that I need someone else to ride with me. I have no problem being by myself in most situations. It's just that when I point my bicycle outside of town I feel very vulnerable. I rarely have a map and my sense of direction isn't as well developed as it could be. But mostly it's because if something should go wrong (and you should hear what my mind comes up with, completely insane fantasies which often end up with me sold into white slavery or deported; a terrible accident causing amnesia and/or amputation; both tires blowing as my brakes fail going down a large hill; the list goes on) I know that if any of these things should in fact happen I will have to deal with it in my second language. A language that deserts me during times of stress. It's a vicious circle. Which I don't know how to say in Italian.

So I was thrilled that I would have a chance to ride with Leif. Also he's an excellent coach so riding with him is easy if you don't keep track of the kilometers we ride. Then Thursday evening he casually asked me in the middle of an entirely different conversation if I'd like to ride with a visiting Swedish friend of his the next day.

I said "Sure!" not fully understanding that this friend is probably the top Swedish cyclist in his age group. He told me this little fact at breakfast before our ride. I requested a pinky swear that he wouldn't let me be hurt too badly during the ride. I'd met P-O once so I knew he wasn't an 80 year old cyclist. Darn, that would have worked for me. He's about my age, which of course made me nervous but what the heck. How bad could it be?

I need to stop asking that question.

The weather was beautiful for once. It's been rainy and unpredictable here for so long that we've learned not to trust those beautiful looking mornings, but nothing was going to keep us in the house. To head into Chianti we have to ride out of town over the train tracks and the city of Florence in her infinite wisdom built a bridge that (from the seat of a bike) resembles a cliff face. We get to do it 4 blocks into our ride. Not nearly enough time to warm up properly, but by the time we get to the top every muscle has been worked just a little bit and I'm thinking that I've already had enough. Luckily, like every climb up, there's a corresponding downhill on the other side that doesn't fully compensate but doesn't disappoint either.

Another kilometer or two and we climb to Piazzale Michelangelo long and slow. I will say that I'm getting a little better at climbing. Elderly walkers no longer pass me on the way up. I don't attain the summit (like how I make it sound so much higher than it's roughly 90 meters?) with my chest heaving and sounding like an asthmatic bulldog. Those are the tough parts of this ride for me, the rest is pretty much doable.

We reached the meeting point a mere 45 minutes after we left the house. We wheeled into the parking lot of a gas station to wait for P-O to arrive. Leif stopped. I pulled up next to him. The next few seconds slowed to Matrix-like time.

I was almost at a complete stop when I thought to myself  "I'm forgetting something. What could it be?"

As I started to teeter a bit I realized what.

I'm still attached to my pedals. Classic beginner mistake. Don't panic.

I'm completely serious when I say that it became completely silent. No traffic noise, no birds, nothing except the faint beating of my heart. I continued to teeter while my head slowly moved to the left to look at Leif. His eyes got big and his mouth opened into a perfect "o". I'm sure this was in response to the shocked look on my face. Later he told me that he didn't realize what was happening until after the dust settled.

I sat there teetering for what felt like ten minutes as I mentally ran through my options. This didn't take long. I could only come up with a few. One ended with me lying under my bike in a bloody and broken heap yet insisting at top volume that I was fine. It was the middle of an approach to a gas station. No parked cars to lean against and no soft grass to crash onto. Not a good option. Another was to simply reach out with my left hand and grab onto Leif. Unfortunately he was too far away and not even close to reaching for me.

Then I had a flash of brilliance. I stood on my pedals, bent my knees and jumped. I know. Most cyclists would tell you that the best I could have hoped for was to hop the entire bike closer to some stationary object to hold on to. They would also tell you that this is incredibly stupid and doomed to fail. By some divine intervention (and my super flexible ankles) as I jumped up I kind of jerked my feet away from the pedals and sure enough, my feet detached themselves from the pedals. Yet another miracle was that after I left the bike I managed to land on my feet, still holding the bike mostly upright and not doing any serious damage to myself or the bike.

Leif's mouth was still in the perfect "o". Suddenly the cone of silence was lifted and I could hear cars and birds. As I stood there shaking Leif asked first if I was all right, then he asked me what just happened. I explained that I sort of forgot I was clipped in and did the first thing that came into my head. He said that it shouldn't have worked, but I could see he was impressed by my 52 year old butt managing to find a way out of the situation. A kind of showy way out, but definitely successful.

It wasn't until 10:00 that evening that I thought of a third option. The most sensible one, of course, would have been to simply start pedaling again till I got my foot uncleated (Decleated? Detached? Is there a word for this?) It was an empty street. How perfectly simple and yet the absolute last thing I thought of.

I'm so lucky that my body responds to the demands I make on it. I chose the most unlikely and spectacularly ridiculous solution. I almost expected to hear a drum roll and giant cymbal crash after I landed. Let's face it. At this point it's safe to say that I'm only one or two more tricks away from a legitimate circus act.

Of course when P-O pulled up a minute later I was outwardly calm and ready to ride, as long as no one noticed how my hands were shaking. It only took about twenty minutes for the shaking to stop. I'm mortified by my near fall, but proud of the fact that I finished the ride to Greve and back without trouble and without slowing them down unnecessarily. Even keeping up with their usual speed at some points. Yeah, I'm very proud of that. Slowly but surely I'm getting better at this. Hopefully I'll make fewer mistakes and improve to the point where I won't have to consider joining the circus. But it's nice to have options.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

June is a Swede's favorite month

I say this in all honestly. Two of their big holidays fall in this month, the main one being Midsummer; a holiday that celebrates the sun and sensuality and the continuation of life. And drinking. Mustn't forget drinking.

Then there is the Swedish National holiday on 6 June. Let me gather my thoughts for a moment....this holiday is a little slippery. Before the 1980's it was the Swedish flag day. Before that or possibly concurrently (I'm having difficulty with the timeline) the day celebrated the foundation of the modern Sweden. By modern I mean it celebrates the election of King Gustav Vasa in 1523. That's right. Apparently if it's post-Viking/post-Dark Ages then it's modern. Boggles this mind, let me tell you.

But back to 6 June. Wikipedia, bastion of knowledge, tells me that the election of King Gustav Vasa ended the period of Danish rule, so it's kind of a Swedish independence day even though it happened at the end of the dark ages and once you've been independent for that long it kind of loses its novelty. What we need to keep sight of here is that it's a day that was celebrated but wasn't an actual holiday where everyone takes off work and fires up the grill and drinks too much. Until 2005, when the government in its infinite wisdom replaced Whit Monday (which was an actual holiday and always falls on a Monday) with the holiday on 6 June, effectively guaranteeing that about twice a decade 6 June would fall on a weekend and no one would get a free day off. People were dismayed, I hear.

So my June has a few Swedish holidays on the calendar which I'm looking forward to. Dancing in the parking lot at IKEA on midsummer doing my best to look like I know what I'm doing won't be quite as terrifying this year. On the 6th we'll meet with the other Swedes in Florence and have an aperitivo and they'll all stand up and sing the National Song and embarrass their significant others in the bar.

My calendar also has a few extra Swedish things, like softball on Sunday. I have no idea if it will resemble American softball, but I'm sure there will be snacks and wine and at one time I was a fairly awesome softball player so why not?

This month will also be filled with Swedish visitors. Truth is they're all coming this week (so far) and I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. Dinner tonight with one friend to talk about wine and cycling. Dinner tomorrow night at our house with cycling people Leif knows well and I know not at all. But cyclist are easy to feed. They'll eat anything, in whatever quantity I have. Never a leftover. Monday a new friend comes to stay overnight. You guessed it, a cycling friend. Thank goodness for Thursday, where there will be Swedes but probably not a single cyclist in the group. (Leif and I don't count.)

I know that I won't wake up next Sunday speaking Swedish but I think the chances are pretty good that this week I'll learn a few new words and hear a few that still live on in out-state Minnesota.

Got you curious, don't I? What words, Michele? OK, short example. Many Minnesotans (and midwesterners in fact) pronounce the word for as fur. People I've met here have told me where I'm from after hearing me speak just a few words sometimes. Translate the word for into Swedish and you get för, which is guessed it....fur. So in Minnesota your ethnic background could be Germanic or Scandinavian or any other country in the world but if you grew up there chances are you pronounce for exactly like everyone else does. Like a Swede.