"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness..."--Mark Twain Introduction It could be considered the other American Dream. Living in Italy, the land of pungent olive oil, robust wine and high fashion. I had read “Under the Tuscan Sun” and it simply served me to increase my excitement at living in such a bucolic country with its rolling hills of vineyards, quaint seaside villages and rich history. The author’s tales of harrowing renovations, inept and often absent workers, bribery and scandal fell on deaf ears. Who cares when your living the American dream in such a fabulous country. I thought culture shock was just a cliché but now that I’ve experienced it first-hand, it is truly a phenomenon. I had prepared the kids the shock of living in and adapting to a new culture, but I don’t think I had prepared myself. Living Overseas was not originally part of the plan. After all, I didn’t think Grahamland was in Europe. Let me give you a quick geography lesson on Grahamland. Grahamland is really more of a concept than a physical place. It’s a place where my family can be happy and free…free from worries….free from the hassles of everyday life…and free to live in the moment. Grahamland came to life when my husband Chris and I were first married. We were mired in the stress of new jobs, a new relationship, a new home, a new life, and dreamed of retreating to a faraway secret island where we were completely alone and the living was easy, slow and peaceful. We called this place Grahamland - our own private Utopia. Over the years, I’ve wondered if Grahamland existed as I’ve juggled being a wife, mom, career woman, chauffer, not to mention chief cook and bottlewasher. I often worry about what I call today’s “Hurry up generation”. “Hurry up and get dressed for practice.” “Hurry up and eat so we can go.” “Hurry up and get in the car.” “You’ll need to hurry up and get your homework done.” There’s even a song called, Hurry Up Blues that starts: “Hurry kids, no time to play We're runnin' late for school today Got the got to hurry, got to worry blues Where's my list of things to do?” So this move to Italy was a bit of rebellion - rebelling against the hurried lifestyle which I believed was unique to the United States. Rebelling against the on-slaught of kids’ sports…… I envisioned a life of leisure in Italy. We’re Moving My first reaction upon getting the official “yes” was to cry. I sobbed uncontrollably at the thought of leaving behind my beloved 15 year old husky, Sandie. She was after all, our first born. But I knew she was much too old to make the trip. Nor would she have adjusted well to city life after having a large yard in which to ramble and sniff all day. But I knew she would settle nicely into retirement at my mother’s house. Over the next few days, my moods vacillated between sheer excitement to sheer anxiety – “I’m going to live in Italy!” “How do I even begin thinking about packing for four years overseas?” “I can’t wait to visit Tuscany and see the vineyards!” “What have I done? Why am I leaving this perfect house with my perfect friends and perfect life?” Chris and I contemplated when would be the best time to tell the kids. Strangely enough, and perhaps as a conscious decision, I never even bothered to anticipate their reaction to this news. Carson, at the age of 9, had just gained the freedom to go ride his bike alone in the neighborhood. We called it “the summer of Carson”. He’d leave the house after breakfast and not come until dinnertime, filthy, covered with dirt, and exhausted from playing war, football and building forts with the neighborhood boys. I never for a second realized what we were taking away from him by moving, not only to another country, but to the city – where open fields to ride bikes and build forts and climb trees did not exist. Lyndsey, on the other hand, at the age of 7, epitomized the phrase happy-go-lucky. She breezed through the first grade and had a reputation for brightening up any room with her smile. So without much thought, we sat the kids down one night after dinner and with big genuine smiles on our faces, we told them the good news. “We’re moving to Italy!” I certainly was not prepared for what came next. Carson leapt from the table and ran to his room crying, inconsolably. For days. Like me and my initial sadness at leaving my dog behind, he mourned leaving his friends, and his newfound freedom, behind. Lyndsey simply said, “Wow!” Like me, her feelings over the next few weeks waned between apprehension and excitement. I agreed to stay behind in the states until the kids finished the school year. For Carson, it was simply prolonging the agony. But the extra months gave me more time to research and prepare for our new adventure. I scoured the Internet for information to get the kids excited – historical information, geographical tidbits, pictures of their new school. Lyndsey, despite maintaining her sunny disposition throughout, would soon lose her cool when the day came to give away her two cats. Not knowing what our new environment would be, we chose to leave our cats behind with friends. Her heart was broken; she cried for days. I shared her heartbreak. While Lyndsey had previously been my ally, now both kids pleaded, “Please don’t make us go”. Chris arrived in Milan in February. His culture shock was exacerbated by the fact that he was away from his family and alone in a strange apartment in a strange city. As the weeks passed, Carson yearned to see his father… but on his own turf. Prior to our April 30 departure, I did everything possible to appease, or perhaps bribe, the kids. I bought Carson a GameCube that I had resisted for years, I hosted a huge pool party for all of their friends, and I sent them to school with cameras, address books and photo albums. I signed them up with their own email addresses and encouraged their friends’ parents to do the same. Only one week away from moving day, Lyndsey developed a strange cough that only afflicted her at night – violent coughing and vomiting fits. After three trips to the doctor, we were still unable to find a reason or a cure. I contemplated postponing our departure but the six month climax had to end. I decided to leave on our scheduled day despite her illness. Strangely enough, the day we arrived in Milan, her cough disappeared completely. I am now convinced it was her way of exhibiting stress. CULTURE SHOCKED One of the primary reasons for choosing to live overseas was for my kids to see the world, to experience different cultures. I was 32 years old before I ever traveled to Europe. I fell in the love with the historical aura, the architecture, the languages, and quite simply was mesmerized by the differences in day-to-day life. And I was frustrated by a recurring thought…why didn’t I pay better attention in history and art history class? It would have made my overseas visits much more meaningful and conversely, had I seen these places first, it would have made those school subjects much more meaningful. So I thought perhaps exposing my kids at an earlier age would entice them to be better students and to develop a knowledge and appreciation for the world beyond the U.S. borders. The kids were 100% opposed to the move but we insisted, "one day you'll thank us for it", knowing that it would probably be years and years before those words were spoken. We were not prepared for "one day you'll hate us for it" which occurred for the first few months. We promised adventurous travel and exotic experiences, and above all, education through exposure. The shock of our new culture manifested itself in so many ways. The biggest difficulty was not in adjusting to the cultural change, but adjusting to living in a city. Looking out the window of our high-rise apartment building over the city streets, we were reminded "you're not in Florida anymore". I often paused and pondered, “What was I thinking?” I gave up my spacious and serene home on a lake in Florida to live in a high-rise apartment building in one of the world’s most polluted cities? My kids left behind their bikes, their friends, their independence - to live in a country where it’s taboo to play outside? Their bikes, skateboards and scooters would remain in their shipping cartons for two full years. As for being an American in Milan, it's been relatively easy. At least for me. Not so much for the kids. My son was not a soccer player (I'm anti-soccermom) so it was difficult for him to gain acceptance by the Italian boys in his class. It was a very slow, very painful, very introspective transition for him. He was quite popular among his class in the U.S. because of his wit, humor and kind heart; the Italian boys judged him not on his personality attributes, but on his soccer skills. They both started school in an English speaking Italian school but within a few months, I had moved Carson to a British school with a greater diversity of nationalities. My daughter, Miss Sunshine, remained at the Italian School and adjusted rather well. So for the first year, I sent them off every morning, in two separate elevators, one with a smile, and one with a frown, which is a scene that epitomizes my impression of day-to-day life here. A LAND OF DICHOTOMIES You must wear a plastic glove to touch the produce in the supermarket, but look down and there just might be a dog standing next to you. Chris and I laugh because Italy, or perhaps just Milan, is a land of dichotomies. Even grocery shopping reminds us of the Seinfeld episode "The Soup Nazi". It's a much regimented process from paying a coin for a shopping cart to paying for your grocery bags to bagging your own groceries - move through the line at a regular pace and don't make eye contact! Even at the line of people sneering at you as you frantically cram groceries into bags. And it's true, you must wear a plastic glove to pick your produce but dogs are welcome in grocery stores...restaurants...trains...and clothing stores. Big dogs, small dogs, fat dogs, tall dogs, slobbering dogs, smelly dogs. Italy hasn’t yet adopted the curb your dog approach. Which leads to another dichotomy - Italians invest in only the finest shoes, but before long, they're covered in dog crap! At one point, our rear balcony had three pairs of Chris’s shoes lined up that were soiled from late night walks where land mines lurked on dark sidewalks. Now here's a positive one: Italians love their red wine - anytime after 10am is acceptable and it is the beverage of choice for lunch, aperitivo (happy hour), dinner and discoing. But the rate of alcoholism is exceptionally low here. I don’t allow my children to order sodas in restaurants primarily because of the exorbitant cost at $3 a can. But they frequently challenge me on why I can have wine at dinner; what they fail to understand is that wine is the water of Italy at less than $2 a glass. I guess the same can be said of Italian food - pasta, cheeses, pasta, breads, pasta. I mean they take their courses seriously here! But I can't seem to fit into any Italian pants - these women have no butts and no thighs. Low-carb diet anyone? Now I know where Popeye’s scrawny wife Olive Oyl got her name. Most distressing of all is that the Milanese seem to have traded in their community pride for community Prada. They take their personal appearance much more seriously than they take their community appearance. The pollution, graffiti, litter, cigarette butts and yes dog crap that blanket the city degrade the quality of life here. This is the biggest dichotomy by far: A city that dresses the world's fashion icons can't even begin to dress itself. I’ve asked a few of my Italian friends why I guess the biggest dichotomy of all – the only people who greet you on the street with a “Buon Giorno” are the beggars. PEAS AND CORNBREAD IN ITALY With one year of culture shock under our belts, I invited my mother to come live with us. After all, she is 68 year old widow, in good health, with no job….when else will she get the opportunity to live in a foreign country and tour exotic destinations. It didn’t take much to convince her. One day, while wrestling with her swimming pool vacuum, I said, “why don’t you leave all this behind and move to Italy with us?” I thought I would go ahead and plant the seed so that we could discuss the proposition over the next few weeks. But her abrupt, “OK,” took me by surprise. Before she arrived, I sent her a list of things to practice – standing an elevator, going to Daytona… So just what happens when you take a Southern mother and daughter….and force them to cohabitate…in a foreign country? You get some very funny stories. Stories about finding the humor in everyday things – whether it was the people we encountered, ordering unknown things from an Italian menu or simply trying to translate the cooking directions on a package of food. It is no surprise that we came from the same mold. We both find ourselves in the middle of six chores having forgotten the original chore. You know what I mean…I start gathering a load of laundry but see that my daughter has left her closet a mess so I get down on my knees and begin gathering toys and run into the kitchen to get Ziploc bags and realize that I never cut up the cantaloupe but as I reach into the Tupperware drawer I see that it’s completely unorganized so I begin stacking…. Don’t deny it. We all do this. But my mother and I have a great time teasing each other over these multi-tasking tactics! But that being said, we’re also quite different. My mother is a perfectionist. I’m a doer, a “just get it done” type of person. Case in point: We’ll decide to plant a flowerbed. I immediately begin digging holes and plopping plants into them. I’m done in 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, my mother is still measuring and drawing equidistant circles for each plant. Then she carefully digs out the soil and mixes it with a healthy peat mix and ever so carefully lifts the plant down into the hole and gently covers the soil. She’s done three hours later. Me? I’ve completed six other tasks in those three hours, including wallpapering the bathroom. Note: don’t ever attempt to wallpaper with a perfectionist/doer combo. I soon realized that you can take the girl out of Georgia, but you can’t take the Georgia out of the girl. Well…at least the Georgia accent. When mom first arrived in Italy, armed with a CD player and the 12-step Berlitz Italian language program, we teased her about her Georgitalia accent. A southern drawl just doesn’t blend into a romance language. And so, Mom has brought the world a new dialect of this romance language, Georgitalia. When mom conceded that she would like to make an extended trip to Milan, one of her requests was that she be allowed to pack dried beans and cornbread in her suitcase; her ultimate comfort foods. One day, while visiting a local military base where we enjoyed commissary privileges, she excitedly grabbed a bag of dried bean soup as if she’d found a sparkling diamond ring exclaiming, “I’ll make a big pot of bean soup when your brothers arrive next week.” I chuckled at her naïveté and gently responded, “They are not traveling to Italy to eat bean soup!” Shortly after her arrival, we decided that we were brave enough to venture out on a driving trip and opted for one of those places you have to go so you can say you’ve been there places - the Riviera. So we set off on the winding, twisting mountain roads through the countryside of Liguria. When we arrived at our destination, on the far western Italian Riviera, we were surprised to find that we were only minutes from the French border. So, on this “do it so I can say I’ve done it” trip, we opted to drive to France for lunch. With no clue where we were headed, we decided to stop in Monaco. The most stressful part of the trip was deciding where to park so we could remember where we parked the car – there could be nothing worse than being in a rented car, in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language, and misplacing your car. We wandered into a rather cute little bistro with a view of the sea and sat down only to discover that it was an Italian restaurant. After a rather uneventful lunch, we headed to the oceanfront where casinos, hotels, and people were dripping in wealth. Mother wore a “I want to meet a Prince” t-shirt. As we made our way back around the Italian Riviera, we opted to stop in a highly recommended seaside resort town, Santa Margherita. I had carefully selected what promised to be a much-touted, quaint little B-and-B called Villa Gnocchi. As we traveled up the winding hillside, we were taken aback by the amazing views out across the Mediterranean and this adorable little cottage set among olive and fig trees. I was patting myself on the back for having made such a phenomenal choice of accommodations. We were completely mesmerized by the endless views and beauty of this mountaintop vista…until we entered our room to find a rather large sign hanging on the wall that read, “don’t squash bugs on the walls”. Turns out, Santa Margherita should be called Santa Mosquito. Our next stop was a real working farm in Tuscany – called an agriturismo. The government of Italy subsidizes farms to provide housing to tourists who want an authentic experience. And authentic we got! Albeit a bit rustic, it had all the comforts of home except toilet paper, which I inquired about on a daily basis. Antonella, who runs the farm with her husband, introduced us to her 89-year-old mother who lived above our apartment. Every morning, Nonna, would come to visit us, chatting about her life, talking endlessly about the region, bragging on her family, discussing the daily meals, and more. At least I guess that’s what she was talking about. She spoke very quickly, and very Italian. I simply nodded my head and repeated, “Si.” I honestly can’t tell you one thing she told me. But for seven days, she came to visit. She didn’t seem to mind doing all the talking. Mom, the kids and I spent the days visiting the many hill towns of Tuscany to return to the tranquility of the farm’s pool every afternoon. Again, we may have well had our heads stamped with U.S.A. on them. As I looked around the pool at the other families there – about eight in all – I realized that my mother and I were the only ones with bathing suit tops on. It wasn’t until I looked over and saw my 9-year-old son sitting on a lounge chair with a newfound friend’s mother – she sitting up topless, while Carson sat less than 10 inches from her breasts, completely unmoved by the incident – that I realized just how different our cultures are. Everything we ate and drank while there came right off of their land - including the chickens whose numbers decreased daily. My suburban kids got their first glance at a chicken being plucked from the farmyard soon to have his feathers plucked so he could be plucked into a big roast pan. They had no idea that that was where chicken nuggets come from! I did not have the heart to tell Lyndsey that the pen of adorable black and white bunnies also meet the same fate. After just two months, you could see the frustrations of daily life in a foreign country wearing on her. She tired of Italian food much quicker than most – of course this is a woman who can’t have two foods from one tier of the food pyramid within a 48 hour period. She could not eat a turkey sandwich for lunch today and eat chicken for dinner tomorrow night. She needs variety and in a country where your choices are limited to spaghetti, penne and fettuccine, it’s difficult to satiate oneself. But before her return to civilization (her words, not mine) my two brothers, sister-in-law and 4-year-old niece decided we needed to tour Italy together. Again. You’d think after our first experience just five years earlier (wouldn’t if be great if we all went to Italy together?”), we’d opt for less togetherness. (and wouldn’t if be great if we all stayed in one large room together?”) In 2000, Chris was invited to speak at events in Rome and Florence and of course, I immediately invited myself. And my mother. But unbeknownst to us, my brothers planned to surprise us by showing up at the Trevi fountain at the exact hour they instructed us to be there for a “special Sunday show”. And surprised we were. We were even more surprised (read bewildered) to discover that they had traded my hard-sought charming B&Bs for one large studio apartment. Nighttime was especially fun (read stressful) – a snorer, a light-sleeper, a white noise machine and an insomniac – all sleeping (or not) in the same room. I felt like girls from the Madeline story. All in our beds, one by one. But, my brothers decided to give a family trip another try. I volunteered myself as tour director and booked a few nights in Tuscany at the farm of a friend of a friend. It was September after all, prime harvest season for this year’s crop of grapes. I thought it would be interesting to experience daily life on a real vineyard during the harvest. So seven of us set out on our little family adventure – crammed into a 7-seater Ford Explorer with a top carrier full of luggage allowing no room for incidentals such as purses or water bottles. Our quaint farm in Tuscany proved to be a bit more rustic than we had anticipated. It was a small cottage set off by itself in the words. We were all alone, just my cozy little family. And the bugs. Bugs are not something you see a lot of in Milan. Chris says it’s because the city is too dirty for them to thrive. The vineyard proved to be exceptionally interesting after all because we had our own private tour….sampling…. But after four days of traveling through our idea heaven olive oil of chianti heaven, we found ourselves with quite a problem. Our already overstuffed vehicle where we were going to put the four cases of wine and 3 cases of olive oil we had purchased, not to mention all the other souvenirs like wild boar sausage. Four arguments, six re-arranges and two hours later, we managed to get everyone and everything into the car. The two young girls were sitting on cases of wine with a case each under their feet. My mother and sister-in-law each held a cases in their laps and the remaining goodies were wedged into any available space. My mother called us the Joads – as they in the Grapes of Wrath. I felt more like the Beverly Hillbillies. We had a 3-hour drive to our next adventure-filled destination. When we stopped for gas, the rule was – no one was allowed to get out of the vehicle for any reason – no potty breaks, not stretching of legs, and certainly no beverages. ROOTS Chris’s grandfather came to the US from Sicily when he was 17 years old. He left behind seven sisters but never returned to his homeland. He wound up as a fat, happy Italian man working in the garment district of New York City. Chris’ mother had always retained her srong tieds to Italy. As a southern girl from Alabama, I relished Christmas dinners of ham, but after marrying Chris, I came to look forward to dinner at his mom’s house – lasagna, meatballs, cannoli and even lemoncello. Ann had visited Italy before but had never ventured to the island….. to re-establish her roots. She had in fact kept in touch with two of her aunts over the 60+ years, exchanging cards at Christmas. She was so excited when Chris began taking conversational Italain classes at the local community college so that he could translate their letters. And so, in October of 2004, we headed to Sicily in search of what we expected to be old, decaying roots. Our entre to Sicily was in Palermo. We rented a car at the airport for what we anticipated to be a fantasy island tour. We decided to explore Palermo before venturing off to our hotel on the highly recommended beach of Mondello. Palermo is Within ten minutes, we were lost in what appeared to be a rough neighborhood filled with gypsies, dead end streets and trash piled along the doorways. Tensions were high as we found ourselves lost in this city where boy murdered. I’m sure we didn’t look like tourists though in our rented red mini-van with luggage piled high in the rear. We navigated back to the centro and parked in the first spot we could find. As I stepped out of the car, I had to do a quick 2-step dance to avoid stepping on a dead cat lying on the sidewalk. Because the kids were still mourning the two cats we left behind in the states, I quickly yelled “morto corpo di gatto” hoping the kids had not learned these words in Italain class et and instructed Chris to get them out on the other side. That was my first and last impression of Palermo. Our hotel along the seaside proved to be a more experience. Incredible vistas……. We ventured into the nearby village for dinner. As we strolled a narrow alleyway, a rotund gentleman standing on his front porch beckoned and encouraged us to eat in his restaurant for a truly authentic meal. We glances up at the neon sign which read “Sapori di Mare”. None of us had yet learned the word sapori but we figured we’re at the beach, how bad can a seafood place be. We ordered calamari as a primi and bravely trusted the waiter to bring us his specialty. The calamari arrived but didn’t look like the deep fried rings we were expecting. Instead, as we dug through the pile of critters on the plate, they appeared to be pieces of small fish resembling sardines. Ocassionally, we’d stumble across a whole fish but usually, the plate resembled a Ziploc bag of saltine crackers after a week in my daughter’s backpack. We then decided that sapori means scraping, as we dined at Scrapings of the Sea. As we drove along the highway to Agrigento, Chris’ dad opted to be our navigator. As we anxiously watched for Road # , his dad quickly yelled – there it is! Only for Chris to reply, “that’s the speed limit”. Needless to say, I was immediately put in charge of navigation and took over shotgun. We immediately drove to Rafadale, the twon where Giovanni had departed 70 years ago. Ann had the address of her aunts who by our best guess, were 90 and 92. We arrived at a rather picturesque piazza and quickly found the doorway numbered…. It was covered with hanging beads you might find in a head shop in the states. For a split second, I considered knowcking but how do you knock on beads blowing the breeze? But Ann bravely parted the bead to see Maria Angela, the 92 year old aunt sitting at a small dining table. We stepped into her apartment and into another world. She and her 90 year old sister Guissepa had shared this tiny space for the past 70 years. It was quite primitive, just a single narrow room divided up as a sitting room with two small twin beds in the back. There were no windows (alas the door beads to allow fresh air to enter). The bathroom, much like an outhouse, was down three steps where even my 10 year old Carson had to bend to enter. The kitchen on the opposite wall, separated by a hanging curtain. No running water, I’m not sure if this was more culture shock or generation shock – two ladies who lived together in a single room with no running water for 70 years but were the kindest, gentlest, most hospitable beings. Nevermind the language barrier. BONE JARNO Italian is, fittingly, a romance language. Mention to anyone that you’re traveling to Italy and they’ll immediately fire off warnings, or wishes, about some handsome, tanned-skin, coal-haired man sweet-talking you in Italian. And while most Europeans speak multiple languages including English, Northern Italy doesn’t follow suit. When I began taking Italian language lessons from a local tutor, the first few lessons were spent repetitively learning the correct pronunciation of letters. Ivana repeatedly enforced that if the word is not annunciated 100% correctly, then no one will understand you. After two years, I can attest that this is true. While dining on a farm in Tuscany, my Southern mother desired butter for her morning bread. To show off my newly-learned language, I asked the waitress for burro. She did not understand me and I was 100% certain that it was the correct work so I persisted. After several exchanges, she finally recognized my need but corrected my pronunciation. Seems I had ordered a small donkey for our bread not “boor-ro”. Lesson learned. Our course within two months of my arriving, I was certain I'd broken the language barrier. I quickly discovered that charades is really the universal language. When traveling to a foreign country, you don't need to speak the native language when you can act out the words eat, drink, walk, drive. And as we all know, Italians love to talk with their mani. My sister-in-law Candy had the ultimate embarrassing language obstacle that turned into a rather interesting physical display. She was plagued by a yeast infection and needed medicine from the Farmacia. Yet I was certainly no help in translating the words “yeast” and “infection”, nor any proper female body parts. So, she was forced into a game of charades with the pharmacist pointing and scratching, down there. But it worked – she got the proper medicine. But as I soon found, charades only works when you’re the actor. One day while shopping in Carrefour, the Italian version of Super Target, a woman approached me and pointed at my watch. I confidently responded in Italian, pointing and explaining that the watches were two aisles over. She obviously didn’t understand my directions because she persisted by pointing at my watch, even touching it on occasion; the inflection in her voice told me she was asking a question. After about three of these exchanges, I realized that she was asking me for the time, not where to buy a watch. Some of the best advice I received from an American friend here who has an impressive command of the Italian language told me, “Just speak with confidence, even if you get some words wrong. People will correct you and that’s how you will learn.” She proceeded to relay the story of her learning curve. She was invited to a dinner party and while seated among several reserved Italian acquaintances, began telling a story and to make her point, said “fare un peto” which means to fart, as opposed to her intended “fare un pezzo” (make a piece). Like today’s haircut. I’ve been getting my haircut from a British woman who speaks English. But the $75 haircuts are killing me so I thought I’d try a local Italian salon. Haircuts here are a la carte – 5 Euros for the shampoo, 5 for the conditioner, 40 for the cut, 3 for the mousse and 10 or 15 for the blow-dry. So, it adds up. At any rate, I decided to try Ego' Salon, which I discovered translates to “bedhead” in English. At least I think so, because everyone in there looked like they had just woken up and didn’t bother to comb their hair. I walked to the counter and gave them my name and told them my appointment time. I was led to a back treatment room and the woman gestured for me to take off my pants. Now I’ve been in some fancy salons but never has removing my pants been part of the process. I quickly realized that she thought I was getting a bikini wax so I immediately explained that I was there for a haircut. (Now I know my Italian is bad but I’m sure when I made the appointment that I was able to communicate a haircut – and not my bikini hair!) Soon after, a man in blue jeans and a t-shirt approached me to cut my hair. He spoke no English, but in my bad Italian I managed to eek out “little cut”. I showed him a picture and off he went. The entire time I was thinking how my 4-year old niece could be doing a better job. He never once cut in a straight line and even went out of his way to cut zigzags. But I must say, after the one hour blow-dry, it looked pretty good. I’m sure I’ll wake up tomorrow with bedhead though! And in the end, the price was the same, roughly $75 in US dollars for a simple haircut. FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD Italian food is perhaps the most revered in the world. Think about it. Who doesn’t love Italian food. When people ask, we simply respond, “I’ve never had a bad meal here.” And it’s the truth. But you’ve got to be willing to try new things. After all, whoever thought of cooking the flower buds on the tops of zucchini plants? Fiore di zucca – they’re on every menu here and they’re quite fabulous – stuffed or fried. Anyway…back to our shopping excursion. We are SOOOO American. We stand in the center of the grocery, eewing and yucking over full octopus packaged in plastic with the tentacles exposed, searching for the face (do octopus have a face?). Just a few feet away is a custom order book – we flipped through it and continue with our giggles and groans – you can actually order your chicken with a face – feathers and all. If you prefer to have the chicken prepared from the neck down, leaving the head au naturale, you can. Then we’re drawn to a counter with a sign “ostriche” thinking to ourselves, “they eat ostrich here?” only to find that these are oysters. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was to watch for packaged sandwich meats that say equine. Fish – if I get served one more creature from the sea with the head attached, I just might scream! I mean, come on…how hard is it to take the head, or at least the eyes, off of my food! I ordered shrimp one day – OK, so that’s not too hard (I am from Florida afterall). But some nice grandpa who was a cook at the restaurant one day decided to be nice and bring me a plate of his “special paella as his gift”. When the little squid arrived on my plate, looking up at me with pleading eyes- I knew I had had enough! These are not calamari squid, mind you. These are OCTOPUS squid – little, tiny purple octopus! About 20 of them! Looking at me! I’ll stick with pasta from now on – no eyes! One day while doing the tourist circuit in downtown Milan, we stopped to grab a slice of pizza. I set my shopping bag down next to me to pay the vendor. Within 15 seconds, as I bent down to pick it up, it was gone. $200 worth of merchandise. That quickly. We’ve had two bikes stolen PRUDENCE Europeans are not recognized for their modesty – this can be quite disconcerting for a southern family. It was the children’s first day of school and my husband and I proudly walked them to the school bus stop just a few blocks away. We had been instructed to wait near the edicola – or newsstand. As we stood and waited, I made a half turn behind us and noticed that within 5 feet of my children’s back were too large outdoor poster displaying naked women on magazine covers – one gentlemen’s magazine and one lesbian magazine. I abruptly attempted to distract my children by pointing out inane cars, dogs and people, but much to my chagrin, these caught their attention. So after the kids boarded the bus and were on their way, these two prudish Americans walked up to the edicola and politely explained to the owner that this was now a children’s bus stop and we requested he kindly remove these posters. To our incredible surprise, they were not on display when we arrived the next day. But within a few weeks, I realized that these displays are all over town and if my children don’t see them at their bus stop, they will see them at another bus stop on their way to school. We’ve learned to take it all in stride. While I’m not for full disclosure on the whole body image issue, I do believe that we Americans go way overboard with While driving along the Autostrada to Tuscany one weekend, Mother and I stopped for gas and we witnessed an scene, that was so interesting yet alarming, we had to pull out of the gas line to watch. A family, including a mother, father, grandfather and two small children, were changing clothes in the parking lot beside their car. They appeared to be changing into formal clothes for an event such as a wedding. The two men, stripped down to their boxes and proceeded to put on suits which were hanging from the vehicles luggage rack. Peeing in public is a socially acceptable behavior here. It is most always men and children, but it happens in parks, along the highways, in tourist areas, and even while standing in line for the bus. There is no attempt to be discreet. While one our first trip to the beach, we witnessed a well-dressed, attractive woman of about 40, changing entirely from her street clothes into a bikini while standing on the beach. It was rather graceful, and quite ingenious. She was wearing a sundress, slid her panties down to the sand, slipped on her bikini bottoms, slid the shoulder straps off her arms, placed her bathing suit top on the outside of her dress and snapped it, and slowly let the dress drop to the sand and she put the bathing suit straps on her shoulders. It was almost . Think striptease in reverse. Shortly after I arrived in Milan, I was due for my annual mammogram. I was referred to the local oncology hospital for the test which was very impressive. I felt confident enough in my Italian to embark on this journey alone. I arrived, and after registering, joined about 50 other people in a waiting area for radiography, attempting to watch those who were called before me to figure out which door to enter, which papers to carry, etc. As my name was called, I confidently followed the young, and quite attractive, technician through a door into a small changing room. He spoke hurriedly in Italian and then disappeared through a second door in the rear of the changing room. I stood frozen for a few moments. “What did he say to me? Did he tell me to remove my shirt? What about my bra? Am I supposed to open the door and walk outside or was he coming back for me?” I just pictured myself, topless, walking through this mystery door, only to find myself in yet another waiting room filled with clothed patients. I did not know what was behind that other door. I don’t know if I was simply in another tiny waiting area or if this was a dressing room. And where was my paper gown to put on? My mind was racing. I apprehensively removed by shirt and my bra and I pondered my next move. Within minutes, the hunky Italian returned and took my hand, and began leading me, bare- chested, to what I assumed was the mammogram room. But not before we marched through what I was sure was the resident’s lunchroom, where about 10 young people dressed in scrubs sat around a table eating. Soon, I recognized the large mammography machine and wondered when the “mammogram lady” would arrive to perform the test. But again to my surprise, Mr. Italian Stallion pulled me up to the machine, grabbed my right breast and began the flattening process. I’m pretty sure the machine picked up a portion of my teeth as my mouth hung open in surprise and partial embarrassment through the entire process. I neglected to realize that I was getting a mammogram in a country where going topless was the norm. I’ve since come to realize that…. Another case in point, my first visit to the gynecologist. I enter his office, he asks me to remove my clothes (this was after a full year so my ability to understand the language was a bit better) and I respond with “qui?” (here?) to which he replied “si”. We are standing in a traditional office with only a desk and bookcases – was he expecting me to strip down right in front of him? You betcha! I frantically gaze over at a rack of white garments hanging on a rack and presume that this is my gown. I ask him if there is one for me to put on (in broken Italian) and he replies “no.” I replied, in English at this point since I was so beyond trying to fell comfortable as an Italian, “well they give you gowns in the U.S.”. It was then that I realized that those white garments were the lab coats of other doctors, complete with name tags and stethoscopes attached. Beverages. Milk is not a beverage. Coffee is not a beverage. Wine is however, a beverage. My husband walks to work with his travel mug and says people stare at him as though he were carrying a shrunken head. Hello Milano, a small English language site in Milan did a great explanation of Milan’s coffee culture: In search of a smile I hope my Italian friends will forgive me but I have to get on my soapbox for a minute here. Now I know why so many Italians immigrated to the U.S. decades ago - they wanted to see a smile. Why is it that Italians choose not to smile even when they make eye contact with you? I went to the gym this morning (yes it was early but the coffee is strong here so that's no excuse) and even after one year here, I'm still amazed at the lack of interaction and congeniality in this city. I say "Buon Giorno" to the woman working the front desk and she grumbles something unintelligible back to me about my membership card. I get on the treadmill and my friend Wendi joins me and we're chitchatting, but as I look around, I realize that we are the only ones in the entire gym conversing. We go take a conditioning class and occasionally comment to each other on our burning muscles, only to have a couple of women in front of us turn and stare...no, glare! Occasionally I find myself committing a social faux pas by smiling or acknowledging someone on the train when we make eye contact. But there is never a smile or acknowledgement returned. Sometimes I wonder what the Italians would do if I just broke into a spirited song, like "The Candy Man"! Even my building porter refuses to acknowledge me, but I think I pissed him off. He told me that my children were no longer allowed to play outside in the courtyard of our building - occasionally; they take a tennis ball down there and hit it against our garage or just chase each other - because it was against the rules of the building. We promptly, through our landlord, requested a copy of these "rules" (which incidentally have never been provided). Apparently we're persona non grata for calling his bluff! So that's one less person I need to try to teach to smile! I know it's just a cultural difference that I need to just accept, but an occasional smile would certainly make the city, and the people, more beautiful. One final topic while I'm on my soapbox. I watched the Pope's funeral today and it was quite moving. Especially to see the crowds of people from around the world stand for hours and days to pay their respects. But I have one question: why didn't they have enough respect to pick up their trash when they left? If you saw the news coverage, both before and after the funeral, there were street crews literally bulldozing piles of trash, blankets, newspapers and food containers. There were plenty of trash containers around the perimeter. That old "Don't be a litterbug" campaign needs to dusted off and distributed to this part of the world. ~Italy is a country of dichotomies - you have to wear rubber gloves in the grocery store to touch the produce, but you can bring your dirty, hairy dog into the store. Italians spend an enormous amount of money on high-fashion clothes so they can look good, but peeing on the side of the road in public is acceptable. Italians are very fit -looking people, but they all smoke like chimneys! ~Americans could certainly learn a few things from the Italians - pre-paid cell phones, charging a deposit for shopping carts, taking a month off in summer.... but Italians could certainly learn a few things through old American advertising campaigns - "Don't be a litterbug.", "Cigarettes can be hazardous to your health.", and "Road rage kills." HIS-STORY We recently spent 9 days in Rome and had a fantastic trip. We walked until our feet were raw, our minds fried, and my wallet empty! Rome has so many things to do and see, yet we spent countless hours people-watching at the Spanish Steps and an entire day at Piazza Navona doing yet more people-watching. We stood in line for an hour to catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt and George Clooney as they filmed Ocean's 12 at the Prada Store. Over time the mob thickened, the tweens were overly-giddy and I sensed a stampede coming on so, being the responsible mother I am, I removed my children from the scene. I'm quite sure I missed my big chance to be discovered by George or Brad, but...my children come first. We spent an entire day at the Vatican, where I quickly learned that I know nothing about religious history. As soon as we set foot on the holy soil, the questions about Popes, Bishops, what Jesus liked to do as a boy, etc. began flying and I had no answers. My ignorance was once again dangled before me as we entered Michelangelo's amazing Sistine Chapel with its pictorial depiction of Genesis. "Who's that Mommy?" "What was Noah doing there Mommy?" Sadly enough, my response was always, "let's ask Daddy tonight." Lyndsey was quite moved, or perhaps I should say "scared straight" by The Last Judgment. The depictions of Satan and Hell were quite terrifying as they pulled souls down from the clouds. She vowed never to do anything wrong again. If we lived in Rome, I would be making weekly visits with her to remind her of those evil images and the importance of always being good. Our favorite hangout turned out to be Hard Rock Cafe. Trust me, after 6 weeks of nothing but Italian food, a burger and fajitas were calling my name. We ate there 3 nights and had lunch there twice. We can not get anything remotely American in terms of food in Milan.
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