“The Wanderer’s Guide to Lucca”

Ciao Readers!
So, this week I am back at the school in Lucca I went to last year. And, since like Florence, Lucca hasn’t changed much and I have come down with a major chest cold, I am taking the easy way out and reposting this blog about Lucca – it is just as picturesque in the Fall. Enjoy….

New Mexico to Italy

Ciao Readers! And happy Monday after Spring Break! We have finally made it to Italy….

The title of this post reflects both its focus, as well as the book from which I got most of the substantive information.  As you may recall, back when we lived in Florence (was that real?!), we took a day trip here and had a thoroughly lovely time.  Now I have 10 days in which to really explore this place…

Lucca is mainly known for two things – primarily, its wall; secondly, Puccini.  Apparently there have been 3 sets of walls built around Lucca, dating back to Roman times;  the current wall, which completely circles the town, was built from 1550 to 1650, using much of the town’s resources (human and economic) for 100 years!   Either it was money and time well-spent or wasted, depending on your perspective – no one ever tried to bombard…

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Ciao Readers!

It’s been awhile!  So, the title of this post is a play on the title of my blog, and a preview of some hopefully exciting blogs to come.  I am off to New York next week to run the NYC half marathon (check out the very cool course – map below).  As you all may remember from my other posts about running, I am no world-class athlete, so I got into this race the old-fashioned way – by getting my name drawn in a lottery.  It was very exciting to get the email this past December telling me I had made it in.

Now, I have to tell you I was worried about going, as I (had) an upcoming jury trial in April.  I thought I was cutting it close, but would make sure I was well-prepared in advance.  Then what do you know – the trial just got reset for June.  While that was rather disappointing, suddenly I had a big swath of open time….and lots of miles saved up…..and the ongoing dream of going back to Italy (to language school in Lucca to be precise)….  It seems as though the universe wanted me to go…..so after NYC I am off to try and remember how to speak Italian (and I am certain, take a cooking class or two).  Stay tuned!

InterNations Magazine Article (featuring ME)

Ciao Readers!  So, I am trying to write this on an iPad as I am out of town and I can’t actually see what I’ve typed (weird)… So I will make this short…. My friend Bobbi, who I met in Florence through her blog http://www.goal42.wordpress.com, had the idea to write an article about our respective expat experiences, in the form of a series of interviews. She submitted the article to InterNations, an organization that helps expats all over the world (she single-handedly dealt with the editor and all the emails, edits, etc.)….and what do you know, they published our article today!!!   Now, fair warning, you will need to subscribe to InterNations to access the article, but when you get the email confirmation with $ choices, just click “no thanks” in the bottom right corner and you’ll be able to access the article (and more) for free! And, yes, we know it’s long – the intent was a 4- part series….  Enjoy!

Learning Italian

Ciao Readers!  And thank you for the Birthday wishes!

Okay, as you may recall, I am using my returning to Italian school as an excuse for less-frequent-than-usual blog posts.  I honestly had no idea how hard learning a language would be (I mean English was so easy….).  So today I thought I’d give you a peek into my not-very-glamorous attempts to once-and-for-all conquer a foreign language (unlike the baby/traveler Spanish, French and Japanese on which I get by).  It is my goal to be able to honestly say “I’m fluent in Italian” by the time we leave here (whenever that will be).

I believe the correct pedagogical terminology for my precise method of study is “the kitchen sink.”   It involves going to school, reading, watching t.v., conversing with strangers and anything else I can think of (and, as I’ve mentioned before, actually doing my homework most of the time – gasp!).

After tons of research and trial-and-error, I have discovered there are basically 3 types of schools here in Florence.  The first is geared towards tourists.  The good thing about these schools is that you meet people from all over, they are great fun, and you learn a ton about the city (because they include cool tours in the afternoon, as you may recall from many previous posts).  The bad thing is that they are stupid expensive, take up tons of time, are revolving doors (people can start any Monday and stay for as little as a week), and are of varying quality when it comes to the actual language part (there may or may not be a textbook, any organization of lessons, etc.).  I had vastly different experiences at the school I attended in Bologna to the one I attended when we first arrived here in Florence.

The next type of school, and the one I thought I would attend, are the free schools sponsored by volunteer teachers for resident foreigners.  This program is supported by the City of Florence and I think it’s pretty cool that they are trying to help immigrants learn Italian.  Unfortunately, from students and teachers with whom I have spoken, the quality seems to follow the get-what-you-pay-for model (one such school is actually held somewhere on Platform 5 at the train station!).   For a bit I thought these were my two choices and I didn’t know what to do…

I then found my current school, Georgio La Pira (they actually also have a free immigrant program, which is how I found them).  Unlike the come-whenever tourist schools, this school is more geared towards long-time visitors and immigrants, and they have set courses that run for 5 weeks at a time.  And, not only do they have  a book (pictured), but teachers at the school wrote it!  (While they don’t have afternoon touristy things, the cost is about 1/4 that of the tourist schools.)  The book and courses are divided into 6 levels, with each progressing through specific areas of grammar, using conversation throughout.  So, since I admittedly am nowhere near fluent yet, let me explain how the heck I ended up in level 6 this term…

I tested into level 3 last term, but once I attended a class I didn’t feel challenged enough.  One of the main subjects (passato prossimo) was something I had studied in Bologna and I wasn’t sure how much I could learn from folks who spoke less than I did.  So I tried out level 4, and while a bit of a challenge, felt it was a good fit.  Clearly, level 5 follows level 4; unfortunately, only one other level 4 student and I returned this term (other students returned to their home countries – Japan, Saudi Arabia, the U.S.), and none of the new students tested into level 5.  This basically left the two of us with the choice of taking level 6 or missing a term.  We both attended the first class hesitatingly (and she’s decided to wait out this term), but I thought the teacher was great, and I love listening to all the other students speak what I would consider fluent Italian.  So, I am the “slow” kid in the class, but hopefully the challenge of it will pull me along.  I will go back and do level 5 later, as it covers two verb tenses I should probably learn! (School is also the single best place to get to practice speaking for several hours a week.)

While school is great, school alone does not a fluent me make.  So this is where the kitchen sink comes in.  To keep me thinking in Italian I try and watch some t.v. in Italian, as well as read books and magazines.  I find that if I watch programs with which I’m familiar (“How I Met Your Mother,” for example), or about things for which I have an affinity (i.e. cooking shows), I can catch up to 80% of what’s said (as opposed to about 30% when I watch out-of-context things like news without video clips).  I especially enjoy Master Chef Italia and listening to Joe Bastianich speak perfect Italian with just a slight New York accent!  I similarly find reading the magazine “La Cucina Italiana” to be a fun way to “study.”  Recently I decided to read one of my favorite childhood books in Italian – “Il Leone, la strega e l’armadio” (can you guess what that is? if not, the photo below will give it away), and that seems to be a similarly effective approach.  Once in a while when I’m feeling very brave (and patient), I pull out a dictionary and attempt the newspaper.  In addition to my solo efforts, I speak only Italian when out and about and politely ask sales clerks, waiters, etc. to please speak to me in Italian if they attempt to speak to me in English.  Other folks find songs helpful, but I find them hard to understand (both literally and figuratively, as they use so many metaphors I am quickly lost).  And, while my initial attempts ended comically, I am still working on finding a language exchange partner (n.b. as of air time, I think I have found the right person…).  Overall, trying to learn Italian has been my biggest project since we arrived (yes, even bigger than waiting at government offices for things).  For a while I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere, but recently I have seen some progress.  Now, as for fluency….we shall see….

Some of my “kitchen sink” methods of study:

Buon fine settimana!

Italians Take Long Lunches

Ciao Readers!

When we first arrived, I posted about “ferie,” or the Italian summer vacation.  Since almost everything was closed at that time, I forgot that most things are closed in any case from 1:00 until 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon for lunch.  It is a stark contrast to both the fact that you can shop/run errands whenever you want, as well as the eat-at-your-desk or the grab-and-go lunches we’re used to in the States (or the “leisurely” 1 hour lunch when you can find the time).  Along with ferie, this is another example of how I admire the culture and Italians’ ability to take real breaks (until it interferes with my getting things done, of course!).

So here’s my dilemma:  I started back to Italian school this past week and it goes from 9:00 – 1:00.  Hardly anything is open before 9:00 (I can grab a few things at Sant’ Ambrogio Market on the way, as people are getting set-up, but obviously nothing that needs refrigeration).  At 1:00 Sant’ Ambrogio Market is starting to disband and all the good produce has been picked through.  Everything else in town (except restaurants and the COOP) are closed at just the time I am in the part of town where anything I need would be.  You really can’t accomplish anything during this time.   (Well, I guess you can accomplish some things – I am writing this blog as Steve and I wait for the mattress store to open back up [it’s Saturday]).  And, while I find this rather frustrating at times, it does make for a good excuse to have lunch!  Fortunately, everything from cheap pizza stands to sit down restaurants are open for lunch.

Since Steve is working, that pretty much leaves me to my own devices.  Luckily, when you go to Italian language school, you meet people from all over the world; some of them are just in town for the week, others for a month, and others (like me) are here indefinitely.  Also, luckily, the kind of people you meet at language school are often like-minded and make excellent lunch (and apperativo, and dinner, and passeggiata) companions.  This past week I shared lunches and gelato with a lovely psychologist from California (who speaks excellent Italian to boot).

One of my favorite places to have lunch is Caffe/Pasticceria Serafini.  But since this place is so very special, I have decided not to discuss it here and give it its very own post (coming soon).   Another cool discovery is this very eclectic gift store – Maestri di Fabbrica – they sell all kinds of fine local products (including great smelling bath stuff), but then as if by magic, from Wednesday to Saturday, they put out a great lunch spread (and dinner, though I haven’t been there then).  For 7 euros you get a glass of wine and can help yourself to the buffet (there are many buffets in town, but it is an unwritten rule that you don’t treat them like a Vegas buffet and you eat whatever you take).   We had the most delightful lunch here last week (and my companion found some gifts to bring back).  I can’t imagine sitting down for 2.5 hours and having a glass of wine on any given weekday in the States (in part because everyone back home is way too busy to kill 2+ hours on lunch, and in part because there [unlike here] I’d have to drive home afterwards).  Seeing how I love lunch and chatting away for hours, this is definitely part of the culture I see myself adapting to very quickly.

Only 1 hour left until the mattress store opens back up….

“Piano, Piano”

Ciao Readers!

I had mentioned this saying (“piano, piano”) in a post last week and a few people e-mailed or commented asking me what it means.  I thought I would take this opportunity to explain, as well as share how it plays out in our adjustment here in Italy.   “Piano, piano” basically means “slowly” or that everything will happen in due course.  A “piano” is actually a floor of a building – like “piano 3” – so it more literally means “step by step.”  When I was in school in Bologna and I would get frustrated at not picking up a concept right away, my teachers would advise “piano, piano.”  This encapsulates the approach you want to take here in order to remain upbeat as opposed to exasperated.

A few days ago, I have to admit I was getting frustrated and had fleeting thoughts of “what the heck were we thinking?!?!”   Some of the things that I was letting bug me:

The electricity/ a/c situation – we have been here over 2 weeks and the electrician and a/c repair man are still out for ferie.  At first I admired the vacation mindset here, but after 2 weeks with intermittent a/c (which, if I haven’t explained, are individual units limited to certain rooms; the rest of the house will remain a sauna regardless), and a fear of blowing out my remaining mini computer, the charm has started to wear…

Our packages – it is still a daily surprise 1) if any packages are going to arrive that day, and 2) if we are going to have to pay for them to be delivered.  So far twice we have had identical packages come (the latest were boxes for pictures) and we have been charged for one, but not its twin.  Every time a new package is on its way, customs in Milan either calls our realtor, calls here, or just mails me forms to fill-out.  Each time its a different customs person and they each seem to have different ideas what goes on the forms and whether or not the box will cost to deliver.  So far we have filled out forms on about 12 boxes, 8 have come, and none for the past few days.  Each arrive in various states of squashed/smashed, but I was actually expecting that.

The paperwork – you seriously have to do more paperwork for everything here.  I can’t think of one transaction that has taken a single form.  From changing over the gas, to getting a pay-as-you-go cell phone, to sending mail.  And don’t even ask about opening a bank account – literally 2+ hours and about 20 signatures (the lawyer in me is aghast that I am signing all of this stuff I really can’t read).  On an entirely other level is immigration – though from what I know the US immigration process is no picnic either.

“Otherness” – it’s an interesting lesson to be the outsider (“stranieri”).  I remember when we were traveling in small towns in Japan, sometimes people would literally cross over to the other side of the street when they saw us coming; once they even refused to get into an elevator with us.  I suppose that is how we treat certain groups in the U.S.  Here it is not that stark, but the fact that I can’t communicate well is frustrating.  I think to the unobservant, lack of communication and lack of intelligence become one in the same (think about Stephen Hawking without his talking keyboard).  Several times here I have completely understood what was going on (like why our wifi wasn’t working), but my inability to communicate effectively had people thinking I was just dumb.  These are a few of our many challenges/frustrations.

However, today was a new day, approached with the “piano, piano” frame of mind.  Our Sky tv box (and lots of cables, cards, usb key, etc.) came today – complete with installation instructions (yes, of course in Italian only).  At first I was exasperated – giving up hope that I could manage to complete my first cable tv installation with only Italian instructions.  But ya know what?  Steve and I laid all the pieces out, and between the photos in the instruction manual (of a completely differently configured box), my few words of Italian, and some new-found patience, I magically accomplished installing Sky tv (again, YAY me!).  We followed this accomplishment with a leisurely lunch out and then found the local public pool and passed the afternoon in sweet relief from the heat.  No boxes came, a gas contract came which I can’t make out, and our other a/c has joined in making that horrific noise, but the tone of the day was different.  I feel relaxed.  It’ll all work itself out.  I recall “what the heck” we were thinking.  As they say, “piano, piano”…

Are We There Yet?!?

I am getting antsy.  My body is still here in Albuquerque, but my mind keeps wondering off to Italy.  Like right now.  I have papers to grade.  But here I am writing about Italy.  I just can’t help it…

So I am going to allow myself a short daydream about some of the Italy things to which I am looking forward…

I am looking forward to the day after we arrive at our new home in Florence (the day itself involves 3 plane trips on separate flights with cats and a drive from Rome to Florence, then 4 flights of stairs with cats and bags, and presumably serious jet-lag – hence the “day after”).  From Google Earth it looks like there are at least three pizza places within a block, 2 supermarcati and the Sant’ Ambrogio market I have written about in an earlier post, all close by.  (And probably some cool non-food things, too).  I can’t wait to explore OUR neighborhood!  (Wow – seriously – FLORENCE, ITALY will soon be “OUR neighborhood” – surreal – super cool – Wow…).  And after we eat, we can take a walk and use our “Friends of the Uffizi” cards to see the “Birth of Venus” and “David” and…Wow…Wow… I am seriously blowing my own mind!!!  Just a walk from our home: 

I can’t wait to go back to school (yes, I am a geek, but hear me out).  My Italian has seriously been slipping away.  I was having Skype classes on Fridays, but now that I am working full time, the only days I could manage a class were Memorial Day and one last class on the Fourth of July.  It’s definitely not enough to learn anything new and really not even enough to maintain what I’ve learned.  So, because I really want to become fluent, and NOT because I am a geek, I can’t wait to get back into language school.  We have three to visit (and choose from) once we get settled.  Me going to school in Bologna: We are totally looking forward to Sunday, September 2nd when we are taking a trip back to Bologna to see Green Day (and eat, of course).  Green Day (one of both Steve and my all time favorites) is the headliner at the I-Day Festival in Bologna on the Sunday before Steve’s school starts (I still can’t figure out what the “I” stands for – any ideas?).  We can get there as quickly as 37 minutes (on the fastest, most expensive train), but will likely take a slow/cheap inter-city train and enjoy the trip (and begin a more frugal life on one salary, for now).  Before the concert I will get to take Steve to one of the amazing restaurants I discovered when I was in Bologna for school, and of course there will be a trip to La Sorbetteria Castiglione (insert daydream about flavors of gelato here).   How cool is it that our favorite band is playing in one of our favorite towns with the world’s best gelato, shortly after we arrive in Italy?!?  Too cool for words, that’s how cool!!!    Green Day (& Steve in well-worn Green Day concert t-shirt – pics of gelato flavors to follow once we arrive):

Okay, I think I have daydreamed about Italy enough to sustain me through another week of not being in Italy.   As always, thanks for coming along for the ride!  Ciao!

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