Thursday, August 2, 2012

Early Onset Post-Departum Depression

With only a few days left before we head back to California, it's time to reflect on our 25-month-long, Rome-based Grand Tour, summarize some of the highlights, recount the low, and share a few observations that might perhaps help others considering such a move.

Our room with a view from apartment #2.
In sum, the experience was incredible and we anticipate it will have a profound impact on all our lives. Yet, our adventure didn't disprove the adage that Italy is a land of extremes in that "the highs" were indeed dizzying and "the lows" rage-inducing, but we have no regrets (except perhaps the experience of contracting and battling headlice in our Trastevere rental soon after our arrival).

Rome is where a dreamy present meets the granite past -- as someone in a velvet waistcoat with high collar and inlaid walking stick most likely noted (while headlice-free) long before me. It's also where the gelato induces paroxysms of pleasure, the light at sunset really is as stunningly beautiful as everyone says and there's no parking -- unless you're a native and consider the sidewalk to be an option.
  • What I anticipate I'll miss most - Tutti nostri amici, the American Academy in Rome, the view of the Villa Aurelia from our bedroom window, the amazing lunches prepared by Giovanni and many others at the Rome Sustainable Food Project, Mozzarella di Bufala so fresh it squeaks between your teeth, the ubiquity of great espresso, the outdoor concerts, jogging in the Villa Pamphili, the seasonal palette of produce at the outdoor markets, cat ladies, opera as an integral part of the elementary school curriculum, walking 8 minutes down the stairs to the centro storico, prosecco toasts in the Bass Garden, yoghurt gelato at Miami Gelateria, the breezes on the Gianicolo, fresh truffles grated over pasta at tableside, the absence of saggy pants, watching murmurations of starlings from our terrace in the autumn and the frenetic flight of parrots year-round, walking everywhere, public transportation, not needing a car to travel out of town, cheap cell phones, communal living.
  • What I'll miss least - Roman drivers bearing down on me and the kids in crosswalks, the wildly fluctuating temperatures of Italian showers, the ubiquity of smokers, the disappointing pastries (generally look much better than they taste), the prospect of having to obtain anything official, pick-pockets, the acceptability of littering, the oppressively hot summer scirocco, waiting 30 minutes for the #75 bus, communal living.
No doubt the preponderance of positives will prevail in my memory and bring us back again for more. In the meantime, if provoked to a bout with Post-Departum Depression, I'll just ask the kids to brighten things up by singing a few arias from Don Giovanni

We have a lot to look forward to and I'm encouraged by the prospect of starting a new chapter of our lives that involves breaking bread with old friends again, hosting new friends around our table, getting my hands back in our garden and rejoining the community. Even more importantly, the kids will be attending a new school later this month -- and when class is in session I'll have the kittens I promised them all to myself.

Arrivederci Roma!
Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wall-flowers need ruin to make them grow.
     -from Hawthorne's Preface to The Marble Faun

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Surviving Summer with Kids: Rome Edition

The prospect of spending summer in Rome can be ominous enough even without kids in tow. If you don’t have regular access to a country estate with northerly breezes, don’t have the financial wherewithal to spend the duration at seaside/in the Alps, and are generally wondering what to do with your charges all day when the Caput Mundi is at its hottest, the following suggestions just might help you keep your cool and get through the long slog before school starts again in September.

General Recommendations
Go early: If you plan on taking in any outdoor tourist sites, complete your outing before it gets unbearably hot (before 11:30).

Embrace the siesta: Avoid the heat at its wilting worst (between 11:30-16:30) by following your leisurely lunch with a long nap. Then stay up late by taking passegiata through the center.

In case of emergency: Stop frequently at gelaterias for a refreshing treat – the promise of a cono piccolo can get you through most trying moments with your flagging bambini. If the heat becomes overwhelming and you are out of range of frozen incentives, take refuge in one of Rome’s more than 900 churches to cool off. If they still persist in whining, point out the skulls and crossbones inset in the floor and remind them that a vengeful God is always watching. If that fails to impress and you have a long bus ride ahead, promise them they can watch a DVD and eat popsicles in their underwear once you get back home.

Suggestions for maintaining sanity outdoors:
  • Stop frequently at Rome’s many nasoni drinking fountains and apply liberally;
  • Take water pistols (However, be sure to instruct the kids to resist the temptation to refill with holy water at any aforementioned chiesas);
  • Get a 10 euro inflatable pool at a corner store and set up in your cortile to create an after-lunch diversion.
Suggestions for maintaining sanity when trapped indoors (without relying on screens):
  • Stock up on arts and crafts supplies, puzzles, games, and cards; 
  • Establish a regular reading hour together;
  • Make fruit juice popsicles.
Some Sites/Activities Popular with Kids
  • Vittorio Emmanuele Monument – Ride the elevator to the top for a superlative view.
  • Castel Sant’Angelo – Hadrian’s Tomb-cum-Papal fortification replete with historic relics and armaments and offering a restorative café and another stupendous panorama.
  • Catacombs– Naturally air conditioned and spooky, plus literal historical immersion.
  • Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini – More bone-chilling fun for the whole family.
  • Cat sanctuary at Largo Argentina – A perfect pilgrimage for felinophiles. Open every day from 12-18:00 with gift shop proceeds benefitting rescue/adoption efforts.
  • Pantheon– One of the world’s oldest and most awe-inspiring buildings, it rarely fails to impress even the most sullen of teens. A good 10 degrees cooler inside and surrounded by some of the city’s most prized artisanal gelaterias.
  • Hop-On/Hop-Off double-decker busses – Generally depart every 20 minutes along a set route focused on historic landmarks in the center and offer a 24- or 48-hour ticket and headsets for English-language narration. Bring a hat and water if you sit up top.
  • Laboratori dei Musei – Most major museums offer a didactic component aimed at school-aged children (i.e. Chiostro Bramante, Scuderie del Quirinale, MAXXI, Musei di Villa Torlonia). Consult their websites for more information.
  • Subterranean excursions – In addition to exploring Rome’s many catacombs and church crypts to stay cool, the group Sotterranei di Roma offers underground outings to sites normally closed to the public (check their calendar of events for listings).
More Indoor Options
Heat-averse cognoscenti seek the solace of air conditioned museums, book stores, libraries and matinees. My kid-friendly picks include the Explora Kids Museum (with full bar for genitori and a great restaurant on site); Centrale Montemartini for impressive machinery and sculptures; Museo Civico di Zoologia; Musei della Civilta’ Romana and aquarium out by E.U.R.; 3D Rewind Rome (admittedly cheesy, but adequately educational); Teatro Verde and Teatro Vascello for live theatre in Italian; and English language cinemas for a matinee (showtimes available at

Best Outdoor Targets
Parks – After tiring of the local playground, head to one of Rome’s larger urban refuges for fun in the shade, such as Villa Pamphili (with the popular Vivi Bistro serving organic lunches, dinners and softserv), Villa Borghese, Villa Sciarra, Villa Ada, Parco Appia Antica, and Bioparco Zoo. Many offer pony rides and puppet shows on weekends and evening concerts, like the Casa del Jazz.

Swimming pools – Check out local clubs and recreation facilities for open swim hours and hotels with pools for their non-guest day rates (often more reasonable mid-week).

Outside the City*
*I’m theme park-averse, but if you are made of stronger stuff, by all means head for Rainbow MagicLand, ZooMarine or Hydromania.

Summer Camps
Why not cut yourself a break and let someone else take on the responsibility of keeping your kids safe, stimulated, clean, fed, entertained, exercised and cool from 8:30-17:00 while you catch up on a backlog of laundry and email? There are a wide variety of camps emphasizing sports from swimming to horse riding and others focused on theatre and linguistic immersion. Most seem to accept both daily and weekly signups. Enquire at your community sports center or theater, or research options online for listings.

In bocca al lupo!

Monday, May 7, 2012

School or Scuola?

School or Scuola?
What to Do When Relocating to Rome with Kids

As an American mother of two and Rome resident since 2010, new and imminent arrivals often solicit my advice about local schools as they anxiously research educational options. While I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject, I can lay claim to a modicum of expertise based on my childrens’ age (7 and 6), our neighborhood (Gianicolo/Trastevere/Monteverde Vecchio), direct and indirect experience, anecdotal evidence and a statistically relevant amount of hearsay. So in the interests of helping bewildered, overwrought newcomers make the best decision for their family (and saving myself the trouble of copying/pasting/personalizing the same email over and over) I herewith offer my admittedly limited insights.

Among your considerations should be the age of your children and the length of your proposed stay as well as cost and convenience.

Our kids were just starting primary school when we arrived and instilling an appreciation of Italian was paramount to our 12-24 month relocation plan, so my husband and I were set on a scuola Italiana. Our quandary was whether to go public or private. Soon after initiating research, a general consensus emerged among both Italian and non-Italian parents we spoke with that, unfortunately, the public schools here no longer enjoy the stellar reputation they once enjoyed -- many in fact are so drained of funds that they can't even provide toilet paper in the restrooms. We ultimately chose the private route once learning that long wait lists were the rule at Rome’s best-regarded public schools and that a private Waldorf-inspired option was within walking distance that cost half as much as my son’s daycare in California. We also thought it would help ease their transition abroad since our daughter had attended a Waldorf kindergarten (and honestly, leaving their beloved tabby cat to start at a new school in a new language is one thing, but making them pack their own toilet paper each day is quite another).

Happily, Arcobaleno was the right choice: the teachers were super, our kids made friends quickly and they began speaking Italian confidently and embellishing their frequent outbursts with expressive hand gestures after only six months. Unfortunately, our Waldorfian paradise was forced to move across town over the summer so we were faced with a difficult decision: run the gauntlet of Roman traffic by driving to the school’s new far-flung, sidewalk-lacking location to double park twice daily or transfer to the local Catholic school 12 minutes away by foot and near my favorite no-name forno, a sprawling outdoor mercato and my go-to cheese guy. As Americans who relish our new pedestrian lifestyle and recoil at the thought of willingly raising our blood pressure four times daily by getting behind the wheel at rush hour, and as non-religious former Catholics forswearing religious education for our offspring early on, this wasn't an easy choice for us. Ultimately we opted for proximity over ideology and signed up at Istituto Sant’Ivo. It's more traditional than what our kids are used to in that they’re expected to sit longer and do more homework, but an acceptable tradeoff for the sake of our entire family’s well being and my sanity as their daily chaperone.

We’re satisfied with our decision, but I’m less thrilled that Italian teachers and parents across the board invariably pretend they didn’t hear you or look at you with a shocked, uncomfortable expression and their mouth hanging open like a cat assessing if something’s rancid when you suggest the possibility of volunteering in the classroom. On the plus side, our kids have the option to stay until 5 pm and are becoming acquainted with the theological underpinnings of the Western canon -- to the point that they now authoritatively fill in the more vivid/bloody details for us when we encounter cautionary frescoes on cultural forays. My chef husband most appreciates the fact that they get a three-course hot meal every day. For me, the icing is they’re actually learning the libretto from Mozart's Don Giovanni in preparation for a performance this spring. It’s been truly amazing to hear them singing my favorite opera in Italian at the dinner table and not something I could ever imagine them doing back in the U.S. (its theme about the exploits and ultimate fate of an unrepentant sex-addict aside). So amazing in fact that I’m almost considering softening my stance against the Church for its long rap-sheet of transgressions – almost. In somma, the school is well organized, the teachers are firm but loving, there’s only an occasional bloody crucifix in evidence, I have only seen lay-people on campus and music and athletics are available on site after school at a discount. A fine solution for those planning to stay a year or two.

Some other families here at the American Academy in Rome that were stranded by the Waldorf-inflected school with us last year decided to transfer to Ambrit, a highly regarded private international school where instruction is in English and more academically rigorous, there’s a door-to-door school bus, and annual tuition is on par with that of a private university back home. Kids love it and the field trips sound enviable (i.e. outings to Pompeii in 5th grade; to Venice in 8th), but parents consistently remark that the rubric of “the more you pay, the fewer number of days” applies when it comes to total class time. If you go this route and work outside the home, be sure to develop a deep roster of on-call babysitters.

We're moving back to California in August, but if we were staying any longer we'd most likely consider making the commute to Scuola Janua, one of Rome’s more traditional Waldorf-method schools slated to move out somewhere near E.U.R. Even though it's future location remains uncertain, the overall emphasis on art and music is right up our alley and a great way to learn/reinforce a language. Plus, the quality of baked goods at all those inevitable classmate parties promises to be above average given the pervasive philosophical preference for handmade over commercial. We also have Canadian friends who send their son there and really like it. 

The decision is of course a very personal one, but I would be confident that the younger the child the easier it will be for her/him to adjust to Italian school and pick up the language quickly. If anything, I think we parents often prove to be the less flexible ones. The memory of our summer vacation stands out as a case in point. We spent a week on an Austrian farm with some French- and German-speaking families, and thanks to the onsite trampoline and my son's Lego® collection, the kids soon found a way to communicate and became fast friends; we parents followed their lead and were thereafter sharing sausages, beer and hiking recommendations. By week’s end the kids were sad to leave, but we had standing invitations to Belgium and southern France and my son was actually speaking some German.

Reasons to Consider an Italian-language School:
  • Your kids are 8 years of age or younger;
  • You value multilingualism (your kids will pick up Italian rapidly and begin speaking and helping you argue with bureaucrats after only 6 months);
  • You will get to meet real Romans and have plenty of opportunities to improve your Italian;
  • You prefer that your bambini hum/sing opera arias before bed instead of “Little Rabbit Foo Foo” or anything by Hannah Montana;
  • More soccer/football than rugby;
  • If it doesn’t prove the right fit, you can always transfer.

Reasons to Consider an English-language School:
  • Your kids are 9 years of age or older;
  • Your kids will prepare for British system exams which commence in grade 5;
  • You will get to meet other English-speaking ex-pats who work at FAO, IFAD and the World Food Program;
  • If you’re American, you’d like to increase your child’s chances of picking up a plummy British accent;
  • More rugby than soccer/football;
  • You value computer literacy at a young age (and could really use help creating decent PowerPoint slides for your next presentation at work);
  • You're in Rome for less than a year, don’t speak Italian and aren’t planning to learn it beyond differentiating basic pasta shapes when eating out.
Reasons to Consider Public  v. Private School:
  • Your kids are used to supplying their own toilet paper;
  • Organic lunches are mandated by the state;
  • You will inevitably improve your Italian and encounter fewer English-speaking expats;
  • You want to experience Rome beyond the postcards and Woody Allen’s new movie;
  •  You already think your kids are too coddled and desire to “toughen them up” by experiencing an overcrowded/underfunded urban school;
  • You need first-hand anecdotes for the book you are currently researching on how state educational systems everywhere are in decline.

Bottom line: If you like the idea of your child becoming bilingual and increasing your own opportunities for meeting locals and speaking/learning Italian, choose an Italian school. You could always transfer to an English language institution if it doesn't work out. (In fact, many parents who send their kids to an English school from the start with the aim of facilitating adjustment to life abroad, find themselves regretting not having opted for Italian immersion.) Alternatively, if your children are older and/or well on their way to preparing for British/American system exams, an English-language international school might be the better course.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Un Permesso per Piacere!

Since we've decided to stay another year in Italia and my spousal Visa expired in May, I'm required to obtain a Permesso di Soggiorno (the Italian equivalent of a green card). As a non-citizen, this document allows me to reside and work here legally until my dual citizenship application is accepted ("estimated processing time: 2.5 years").

Having finally obtained my Permesso, I can say without reservation that the best gift we as parents could ever bestow upon our children is not a signed original of the Articles of Confederation happened upon at a roadside flea market, a mortgage-free country house or even a well-diversified stock portfolio, but a European Union passport. For it is indisputably the latter that will broaden their world-view by offering countless opportunities for travel, learning and global friendships. The benefits are legion really, and extend far beyond exponentially improving Giovanni and my chances of ending up with a decent view and palatable meals when we're consigned to a long-term care facility in our dotage.

Over the course of our kids' lives, an EU passport won't only grant them greater possibilities when it comes to living, working, studying, volunteering, loafing, overindulging, pursuing unlikely affairs and having their hearts broken abroad some day, but it will also confer the distinct advantage of significantly reducing the number of hours they spend standing in long queues and suffering the indignities of airless waiting rooms and the whims of petty bureaucrats. Ultimately -- after all the private lessons, carpool choreography, nutritionally balanced meals and investment in sport camps, safety devices and cognitive and artistic enrichment -- isn't that what every mother desires?

Unfortunately, I'm battle-hardened from my encounters with Italian apparatchiks and the wounds are still fresh so I know of what I speak. You'd think that being married to an Italian citizen, possessing Italian heritage and producing two Italian citizens to help reverse one of the world's lowest birth rates would count for something -- or at least make for a straightforward process. You'd be wrong. After withstanding five trips to the Questura (State Immigration Office) on the industrial outskirts of Rome to obtain my Permesso and resigning myself to countless lost hours and associated indignities, I take no small comfort in the fact that both my kids were instantly granted dual citizenship upon emerging from my womb (aka my "ICI" - Italian citizen incubator). Thus they will never have to endure the misery, emotional scarring and lost productivity of their forebears.

This ominous mid 1970s-era miltary bunker surrounded by barbed wire and porta potties and lacking in sidewalks inspires both fear and dread to all who dare approach (the Questura that is, not my womb) and reaching the imposing entry gate alone requires a good amount of nerve as you have to share the main road with oncoming traffic, successfully dodge all the trucks hurtling by and hold on to all 17 varieties of paperwork en route that might or might not be required that day.

As if this wasn't enough to make one reconsider submitting to the process for any presumed greater benefits, there's a lonely, sun-baked bus stop out front that affords an unobstructed view of the sprawling, corrugated metal-and-tarp shantytown across the street where desperate denizens (presumably those denied their Permesso) demarcate their hovels with makeshift laundry lines and broken appliances and start casing any cars as soon as they're parked. No wonder most everyone waiting for their number to appear on the illuminated board inside is agitated -- they know that by the time it's called, their vehicle may well be stripped of anything valuable and they'll have to sit even longer to take the bus home. Everyone else just has that distinct look of resignation endemic to the human spirit being systematically crushed.

However grim or exaggerated it may sound, this is Rome's current version of a welcome mat for those interested in staying in Italy longer than three months, regardless of purpose. And don't count on things getting easier or more hospitable for foreigners of any particular stripe while waves of fleeing Libyans continue to wash up daily on southern shores and prime minister Silvio Burlesque-oni spends what little remains of his mandate trying to change the law only so he can avoid prosecution.

And make no mistake, the government wants you to give up when you're informed by an epauletted official that five additional forms are required by the following week and then are told upon your return by a disheveled guy in an old T-shirt that three of the documents you spent a dozen additional hours to obtain are irrelevant and that four more have to be submitted within a 10-day window (with official stamp) or your application will be considered null and void and you'll be forced to start all over again. Don't give in to the temptation to lash out, cry, assume the fetal position and start rocking, resort to sarcasm or create anything ressembling a scene -- no matter how frustrated or despondent you become. Flying into a rage might be extremely satisfying in the moment but will mark you as among the weak and unworthy and, at minimum, result in several more unecessary trips. Persevere.

The requirements are unpredictable (expect them to change with each official you speak to) the volume and variety of paperwork staggering, the unabashed incompetence mind-numbing and the waits legendary, but none of these deliberate obstacles are insurmountable. Becoming legal here is more akin to an intensive course in anger management than an official governmental process any American would recognize, yet you can succeed if you summon all your powers of Zen detachment and patience in the unshaven face of adversity and stare steely eyed into the abyss of state-sanctioned whim and intentional inefficiency.

For those interested in living legally in Italy or applying for citizenship, I've compiled a few essential "Do's" and "Don'ts" below. If you don't feel up to the rigors required and choose to live fuori le regole (outside the rules), be aware that you may be forced to pay an exhorbitant fine and fly home unexpectantly after a routine traffic stop or while crossing the border for a weekend outing. (I can't afford to take such a risk while I'm still responsible for making sure that two of Italy's youngest citizens' teeth are brushed twice daily.) Now that I've got my Permesso (generated on a dot-matrix printer circa 1987), it's good for five years. I sincerely hope that my application for dual citizenship (now languishing for the past year on a desk somewhere at the San Francisco consulate) is accepted before I'm forced to embark on a renewal odyssey in 2016.

In somma...

Questura Do's:
  • Do suck up (but don't be too obvious about it or you risk becoming a target for greater abuse).
  • Do make the first surly functionary you encounter type up what you need for your next trip on official letterhead so that the next surly official who looks it over will be less inclined to invent an additional non-existent requirement (which happens frequently by the way when a put-upon employee has no idea what's required in your particular case and is simply attempting to save face).
  • Do bring water, plenty of snacks, more than 5 hours worth of reading material and toilet paper.
  • Above all, do maintain your smile and always be courteous.
Questura Don'ts:
  • Don't become sarcastic as a defense mechanism. Just keep all cutting asides to yourself. For example, don't ask out loud why they bothered installing 21 sportelli (numbered help desks) when no more than four are ever operational at any one time. Just start jotting these maddening observations down as the basis for a cathartic blog to help pass the time -- and in case you forgot your reading material in the car).
  • Don't try to be helpful by suggesting that the most commonly used forms be evenly distributed to all sportello operators to increase efficiency instead of doled out individually from an office on the third floor.
  • Don't be tempted to ask to speak to your assigned malcontented official's superior whenever you reach an impasse.
Following these guidelines might just save you a dozen or more hours and shave your total trips down to under five. But I'd go ahead and pray to your god of choice beforehand to cover your bases if you think it might help. It can't hurt.

Buona fortuna!

Friday, April 8, 2011


Say what you will about my increasing irregularity with this blog, I might not be as predictable as the #44 bus in Monteverde Vecchio, but I'm certainly more likely to make an appearance than the mythical #75.

Since my last installment, we've hosted family and friends and partaken in many memorable outings -- the Appia Antica, Colosseum and Palatine Hill here in Rome; Lago di Bracciano, Tivoli and Hadrian's Villa outside the city; the Chianti region of Tuscany; Orvieto in Umbria; the thermal baths near Viterbo; and most recently, the Etruscan necropoli of Cerveteri and Roman ruins of Ostia Antica (the Temple of Ceres pictured) -- many of these jaunts involving illegal picnics with superlative views. Full Disclosure: When it comes to prohibitions pertaining to the breaking of bread amid picturesque and storied surroundings, we are avowed and unapologetic transgressors. As such, we can attest that food tastes best outside and is exceedingly more delicious when you know you are breaking an absurd law.

We've also met dozens of visiting artists and scholars over the past several months, including Kathleen Crowther, the inspirational head of The Cleveland Restoration Society (here in part to persuade the Vatican to preserve some of the shuttered churches and architectural gems of my hometown), photographer Annie Leibovitz (who helped document Giovanni's pasta-making workshop for the AAR community last month while here with her children), and current resident artists poet Derek Walcott and painter Chuck Close. Here's a shot of Annie graciously assisting Giulia out of the Academy aqueduct after one of Giovanni's "family friendly" (aka significantly more raucous than M-Th) Friday night dinners.

Other noteworthy developments include Giulia learning cursive; Giorgio volunteering as Italian translator for a new Canadian girl in his class; Giovanni successfully managing to purchase and register a used car for weekend jaunts (no small feat); and me working as a part time research assistant with a National Science Foundation 3D imaging project. It's only a few hours a week but permits me to spend time milling about the library stacks so that I can take pictures of etchings, paintings and historic photographs. These will ultimately be used to help flesh out an interactive reconstruction of the Roman Forum and Colosseum from approximately 300 BC to the present day. For those so inclined, there's a very good NSF video clip explaining the project here.

I also invested in some new cleats and played in our first inter-Academy soccer match against the Spanish last month. We lost 3-1 and had 6 subs to their none, but were undisputably superior sartorially, if not in terms of skill (see action shot at left). The indignity of being so easily dispatched was blunted by our side's collective rationalization that we were up against several hundred more years of collective and cultural experience with the game. A round of beers with the Iberians thereafter also helped dull the pain. Our next face-off is against the Germans this week and promises to have a more punctual kick off if not a more satisfying result.

Now that it's spring in Rome and the perennials of the Mediterranean have returned en masse to the urban parks and meadows (red poppies, white daisies, purple wisteria, yellow daffodils and unnaturally bronzed male pensioners in form-fitting Lycra® shorts), mothers inevitably turn their thoughts toward reintroducing short sleeves to their brood, incorporating the season's first strawberries into school snacks, stocking up on elastici (Band-Aids), and, in my case, renewing their guest Visas until their dual citizenship application is accepted by the state authorities ("estimated processing time: 2.5 years").

While taxes may not be inescapable here, excessive paperwork is and its proponents ascribe to it a kind of fetishistic power that's unmistakably sadistic in nature. Based on my limited experience and as a non-native unaccustomed to its vagaries of application, I admit to being thoroughly unsettled at the thought of trying to obtain a "simple" extension. I'm not sure there is a word in Italian that adequately captures my overwhelming sense of dread, so I've taken it upon myself to make one up that sounds apt enough:

Scartoffolaccia [scar-toh-foh-LAH-cha]- the fear and/or hatred of seemingly endless paperwork and obscure forms invoked by lesser officials to circumscribe one's freedom (be it with regard to travel, expression, choice of entrée, etc.).

Just saying it out loud can be cathartic. I also find that a sense of blithe resignation can be more rapidly attained/regained if your forceful utterance of the word is accompanied by something resembling a spontaneous and indelicate hand gesture. You can begin practicing and refining these gestures while waiting for the #75 and seeing two alternate buses with the same route number go by at the same time (Exhibit A pictured: two #710s in flagrante delicto. Mating season perhaps?)

The good news is that I need to renew my Visa not only to enjoy our summer vacation tooling around northern Europe in our newly acquired 2005 Renault "Scenic", but to remain at the American Academy another year (for those of you who haven't heard, Giovanni will be stepping up to sous chef in the RSFP kitchen and I'll continue to help as a part time midwife concerned with the healthy delivery of the new AAR website and its postpartum care). While we've logged some highs and lows over the past nine months, we're thrilled to be staying on and look forward to becoming even better aquainted with the eternal city over the next sixteen.

We haven't nailed down the particulars of our summer itinerary yet, but I'm advocating that it involve a smattering of imposingly crenellated, moat-surrounded castles, one or two idyllic alpine farm stays and gallons of perfectly chilled Gewurtztraminer. I'm even willing to entertain a pilgrimage to LegoLand in Denmark or Germany and break my solemn parental vow of avoiding all merchandice-based amusement parks if it'll help get us over the Alps with a minimum of whining. No small sacrifice, but I am bouyed by thoughts of returning to Austria after more than 20 years, resusitating some of my moth-balled Deutsch and introducing Giovanni to die weiter Welt der Wurst.

The bad news is that Daddy believes the kids will only be satisfied if they experience EuroDisney as well. I maintain that the bambini would be just as happy, if not more thrilled, to each receive their own roll of duct tape or a large appliance box so we shouldn't even mention it. Besides, LegoLand should more than suffice. What's becoming clearer with each discussion however, is that it's he who's most eager to visit the "Magic Kingdom". It's still early so I'm hopeful that with the dollar in free fall as I type and Parigi being rather far removed from other collectively agreed-upon targets, circumstances will conspire in my favor. God-willing, I'll be able to "slip the Mickey" at least another year.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tummy Trouble-induced Trash Talk

I can assure you, gentle reader, that my lack of timely updates to this blog does not mean I’m not thinking of you on a daily basis (and I do mean the three of you in Saudia Arabia as well as all you loyal Latvians out there making up my fourth largest fan base). I admit I’ve been distracted and blame the many demands associated with ensuring a steady stream of family merriment during the holidays, several small trips (one to Umbria and another to Abruzzo), two separate bouts battling what seemed to be an eternal stomach bug that sapped my will to go on living (despite each lasting only 36 hours), and some new books obtained via Amazon Italy, including the fascinating new Cleopatra biography by Stacy Schiff which includes interesting anecdotes about the young queen living for at least three months right here on the Janiculum Hill (where I like to think she enjoyed the same view as we do and worshipped the ancestors of the Academy's feral cat population between intrigues).

The good news is that I won both rounds with said bug and as a result have lost some pasta-induced kilos (or at least enough that new acquaintances have stopped unabashedly congratulating me on what once appeared to be my incipient pregnancy whenever I wore a tight-fitting top). Through no conscious design of my own, I’m off to a “leaner and meaner” New Year. And meaner insofar as I found it much more difficult to wisecrack while harboring lit matches inside my innards. That and the fact that we've had to cancel family outings over the last two weekends and miss several days of school because each of us has taken multiple turns convalescing with a mal di pancia.

In addition to being buffeted by our first noteworthy waves of seasonal illness, lately the spotty sanitation practices and utter disregard of public space have also played no small part in contributing to my change of spirit. Leaving out the government vs. Mafia standoff contributing to the intractable Neapolitan garbage crisis and the fact that the largest illegal dump in Europe is right here outside Rome in the aptly named locale of Malagrotta, it’s hard to square Italians’ much vaunted love of all things beautiful with their insouciance when it comes to tossing trash everywhere and walking away after their dogs relieve themselves in the middle of the sidewalk.

Six months ago the detritus was somehow more peripheral and easier to overlook and avoid, but now that it's winter it seems to have gotten worse and I'm feeling worn down. For as much as i Italiani are reputed to love children, the majority of dog owners in our neighborhood of Monteverde Vecchio have clearly disavowed the cliché and agreed that the marciapiedi in front of our kids’ school is an especially good location to walk away from nonchalantly after Fido empties his bowels. Apparently the only place deemed inappropriate for creating Rome's next layer are door thresholds and the curb. So much for the social contract.

Discarica, rifiuti, monezza, spazzatura, immondizia, ciarpame, robaccia, porcheria, schifezza, sciocchezza, pezzente... Italians may have as many words for trash as Eskimos have for snow, I really don’t know. While they seem to all but ignore it piling up in the cities, on the beaches and along roadsides, the profusion of terms suggests that garbage is nonetheless very much a part of the collective consciousness.

Assisi proved a salient exception to the glut of refuse in that we saw absolutely no litter of any kind, not even a cigarette butt, and this undeniably contributed to the ancient redoubt’s otherworldly effect (as much as the gorgeous stone edifices, luminous cathedral frescoes, imposing castello and evocative hilltop mist). Nonetheless, I passed on using the public restrooms when I encountered this sign in the Piazza del Commune. Like most wine-loving tourists, I’m happy to pee outside in a pinch (far from public rights of way of course), but when it comes to Medieval facilities I won’t settle for anything less than 5 stars.

Part of the rural/urban contrast in cleanliness is most assuredly one of small towns where inhabitants take more pride in place (and where all women of retirement age are apparently required to stare disapprovingly at passersby out their 2nd story windows for at least some part of every day in order to continue receiving their state pension) vs. the relative anonymity of cities where such concerns are more easily relegated as “someone else’s problem” (and anyone issuing disapproving looks from high-rises is more easily ignored).

Part of my problem is that I that haven’t lived here long enough to turn a blind eye to the preponderance of trash. I also admit I still harbor a certain amount of “can-do American spirit” when confronted by seemingly overwhelming challenges. I can’t help thinking of potential strategies for deterring the most brazen malefactors over the course of my many trips negotiating fecal landmines with kids in tow -- or plotting my revenge while scraping malodorous shoes before dawn. A live webcam trained on the street in front of our school might do the trick or at least some posted handbills shaming these antisocial, passive-aggressive, poopy practitioners via humor.

When some other expat moms began complaining about the increasing number of dog-bombs outside school last week, I remarked that were we in the U.S. a parent committee would have already formed and distributed multicolored fliers to address the issue. I’m sure if I actually do decide to engage with the system in an attempt to affect positive change, I’ll be humbled soon enough – most likely after the fifth set of forms to be completed in triplicate (what I imagine to be the Rome Sanitation Department equivalent of being kicked to the curb).

Monday, December 13, 2010

The End of Burlesque-oni?

Now that the monsoon rains have abated, the weather has taken a decidedly wintry turn (that means temps in the upper 40s-low 50s in Rome). We have our found evergreen branch propped up by a window and suspended cunningly with string lights (thanks to Giovanni) and decorated with red globes and homemade pasta ornaments (thanks to me, the kids and the microwave oven). Naturally I was dubious at first, but admit the overall effect in our relatively austere apartment is a success as it smacks more of holiday spirit than enforced frugality.

Other seasonally noteworthy items include: the Acad
emy Christmas tree now decorated in the salone; the fellows’ holiday play and the kid’s school choral performances coming up this week; the mountains of torrone candy at the entrance of all grocery stores; a few skating rinks; special markets throughout the city center proffering Christmas tchotchkes and “La Befana” witch puppets on broomsticks to mark the Epiphany on January 6th; and (arguably more cheer-inducing) the anticipated downfall of the Burlesque-oni government this afternoon.

Could it be that enough Italians have finally had the epiphany that continuing to support Silvio, their longest-serving playboy premier, is no longer in their best interest? We shall see. Even if there is a change, I doubt the next liver-spotted, gam-oggling uomo will have the power to change much (like getting toilet paper back into the public schools). If anything, there will probably be a temporary hiring hiatus when it comes to naming leggy dental hygienists to government posts. I wish I were exaggerating. Unlike toilet paper in Italy, there is no shortage when it comes to articles like this:

In other news, Gio’s handiwork in the kitchen continues to please (as does his preternatural talent for silken carbonara sauce), the kids are learning a lot of Italian carols at school and building their gladiatorial skills and making winter clothes for their stuffed animals at home, and I'm helping the Academy redesign their website so that it’s more intuitive and user-friendly when they relaunch it this spring.

Some interesting discoveries made over the course of my online research include learning that the Rome Sustainable Food Project had considered launching a minisite with the "RSFP" acronym for simplicity's sake, but was forced to consider other alternatives by the Rope Skipping Federation of Pakistan ( It also explains why my previous blog posts mentioning the RSFP garnered so many page hits in Pakistan – presumably each visitor clicked away crestfallen to find I was merely focused on food. Who knew that rope-skipping was a competitive sport? Apparently no small number of South Asians and now everyone in the AAR kitchen, that’s who. Rather than lament the loss of virtual real estate, I propose that the Academy pursue this rather unique opportunity for cross cultural exchange and increased understanding. At the very least, it would be cool to swap some swag.

Culturally speaking, I've been able to take advantage of some interesting walks and tours over the past month, including one to Rome's historic Testaccio neighborhood where there remains a sizeable hillside made solely of ancient amphorae. We hiked up in the rain but were treated to a great view at the summit and saw many distinct pot sherds along the way. Once the olive oil-filled containers were delivered from the colonies by boat and emptied into warehouses situated along the Tiber, the Romans disposed of them by breaking and stacking them over centuries to create a veritable terracotta mountain. Archeologists have since been able to ascertain that most of the vessels were made in Spain, that lime was spread between the layers to mitigate the stink of rancid oil and that the extensive warehouses still remain largely intact under the district's residential pallazzi. Che figo! Too bad it can't be replicated to address today's scourge of plastic bottles.

I was also able to tag along with a handful of fellows for a private tour of some of the wonderfully preserved and recently discovered beachside ruins outside the town of Ardea about 35 km southwest of Rome. Some assert that this is where Aeneas, the reputed progenitor of the Romans, landed from Greece. Baths and temples figure prominently of course and many mosaics are still intact because they were covered by beach sand for centuries. They only started excavating 10 years ago so more layers are sure to come.

On a final note, my apologies for those who may be bothered by the sudden appearance of advertising on my heretofore commercial-free blog. I still haven't received my replacement credit card since that dreadful day back at Porta Portese and kids' vitamins cost about $18/bottle so yes, I've decided to hold my nose and "monetize". Honestly, I'm kind of curious to see what kind of ads these "smart engines" will serve up to sync with my scattershot musings. Viagra since I mention Berlusconi? Brand name olive oil perhaps? Or is it still just acai berries all the time regardless of topic? Whatever pops up, I invite you to embrace any such commercial incursions as a few clicks here and there might just help keep us stocked in vitamins and vino.