Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Service with a Smile?

Waiters and service people in Italy tend to be quite personable and friendly. Although the speed and rhythm of the service is different from what you would expect in the States (translate that as "slower"), I usually have little to complain about. But, then again, maybe I have just been here so darn long that my standards have changed...

BUT (as Peewee Herman once said, "everyone I know has a big 'but'"), I do have one complaint I'd like to set forth at this time. It drives me nuts when I have a comment to make about something I've been served, and the service person tells me I'm mistaken.

Case in point. Today I met up with a friend at a lovely bar on the harbour for a coffee. She ordered an espressino freddo, which is a sort of ice-cream-like concoction with blended and frozen coffee and milk.

Looks good, doesn't it?

I ordered what should have been a much simpler drink to prepare: cold coffee. Do I need to explain what it is? Coffee, previously brewed, then sweetened and stuck in the fridge to get cold. Pretty simple, huh?

And tasty, too. Usually. Not today. I think they forgot to sweeten it before they chilled it. Or maybe they did some other strange coffee definitely not involving sugar. It was as bitter as plain black coffee.

So, no problem. I figured I'd just get some sugar and sweeten it up for myself. I did not even ask the waiter to do this for me. I got up from our outdoor table, walked into the bar and politely asked for some packets of sugar, since, I explained, the coffee was a bit bitter.

"That's impossible!" said the waiter. "There's coffee ice in it and that's pure sugar!" He reiterated this several times...animatedly.

Okay, great. There's coffee ice in it. But, for me, it's still bitter. Can I just have some sugar please? It's not like I was complaining. It's not like I asked for a refund. Or threw the bitter potion in your face, or anything.

And, excuse me? I'm mistaken? How can I be mistaken? I'm the customer...I'm always right. Right? Apparently not. Apparently that little service motto has not made it down to the heel of the boot.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Class of '80

I was going to sit down and write a lighthearted post about shoes or fall fashion or the latest foibles of one of my sons or the other, when I got sidetracked by what was meant to be a quick stop at Facebook. Somehow, one way or another, "quick stop" and "Facebook" never quite work out for me. Once you go in there, it's hard to get back out!

What caught my eye this time were a couple of friends who had posted photos from our 30th high school class reunion, held in California this past weekend. I graduated 30 years ago? Let me be banal and say, oh my God, has it been that long? It doesn't seem that long ago! Yeah. But, facts are facts and the numbers add up and, sweet mother of God, 30 years have slipped on by...

I couldn't actually attend the event, for one because California is a long and expensive way away from here, and for another, I'm still working at this time of year. But, looking at the photos was really an amazing experience. I mean, first of all, I can't recognise a lot of the faces. Who are these people? Did I once know them? I went to high school in a small agricultural town and there were only 80 of us in my graduating class. I should be able to remember 80 people that I went to school with every day...

Others are quite recognisable, although how they have aged is quite unpredictable. Let's just say...differently. Some have put on weight, some have buffed up their muscle tone (mostly the women!), some have lost hair, some look like grandparents (some ARE grandparents) and some, scariest of all, look exactly the same! What drugs are they taking for that effect, I wonder?

But all in all, as I perused the photos I was thinking, looks like a lot of nice people having a nice time together. And as I clicked to the next, next, next photo, one caught my eye. A closeup of two people I was sure I had never seen before in my life. Nice looking couple, but who are they? Gasp! A glance at the man's name-tag stopped me dead in my clicking.

That, that, that's my ex-boyfriend! My very first boyfriend! My high school sweetheart! And I didn't even recognise him. I mean, he could have passed me by in the street and I would never have known who he was.

I've cut his wife/girlfriend (don't know, don't need to know) out of the photo just to maintain her privacy. Not because I want to cut her out of his life in any metaphorical sense...knock those thoughts right out of your head! I am really glad he has a significant other with whom he looks to be very happy. Because I'm the one who broke up with him...and I have been carrying the residual guilt around with me for years!

He still looks like the sweet guy he was way back then, doesn't he? How could anyone break up with such a sweet and kind and wonderful person? We had our whole life mapped out. He would continue to work at the place where he worked after school and I would study library sciences at the nearest university and then return to our small town and become the city librarian. We would have two children, our own home, you get the idea. We had a plan.

But, somewhere along the line, I realised that the plan wasn't what I really wanted. I wanted to travel the world, learn foreign languages, dance the tango in Buenos Aires, be a TV news reporter, and write books about all my crazy misadventures! All that wasn't going to happen if I stayed with him in that comfortable life in that small agricultural town.

And so, I broke up with him.

It was bad news, as breakups generally are, 'cause feelings get hurt, misunderstandings abound and there are bad feelings on both sides. But, at the time, it seemed to make more sense to break up earlier rather than later. Since I knew that that life wasn't the life I was really dreaming of, it seemed better, more fair, to be honest about it and do it sooner.

So, seeing those pictures today brought all those old and distant memories and feelings back to me and I'm feeling kind of melancholy, but satisfied, nonetheless. I'm glad I knew and loved that boy 30 years ago, and I'm so, so sorry if I hurt him, but I made the right decision. If I hadn't done it then, I wouldn't be here amid the olive trees today, now would I?

Sunday, June 27, 2010

USA Out of the Running...

The US team is out of the World Cup, too... Gloom and despair has descended upon my household like the sound of 10,000 vuvuzelas petering out in a sad and lonely whimper.

Now who are we supposed to root for?

I'm leaning toward either Mexico or Japan, because I have lived and worked in both of those nations, so there are emotional and historical links. Danny is undecided, but leaning toward Japan. More on the logic of "support the underdog" than anything else.

In the meantime, what's a boy to do but go to the beach, contemplate the horizon and the big questions in life (Justice! Injustice!) and lean on his old man for a little support...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Italy Out of the Running

Personally (shh, don't tell anyone okay?), but personally...I could care less about the World Cup.

That's a dangerous sentiment at my house, best expressed far from the hearing range of my older son. For him, the World Cup means "all soccer, all day" for the entire period of the event. He watches every game televised on Italian TV, whether he cares about the teams playing or not. Is it possible that he really cares about ALL of the teams?

Every day after Italy has played he buys the Gazetta dello Sport, the Italian sports daily, and pours over all of the analyses and statistics.

He has eaten every evening since the beginning of the Cup in front of the TV, with his dinner balanced on a tray on his knees so he can follow the game.

Let's just say we are living, breathing, talking, everything soccer all day every day and I see no end to this lifestyle in the foreseeable future. No wait, it has to end. The World Cup can't last forever...can it? No, no, July 11...the final game will be held that day. There's a light at the end of the tunnel!

Check out his enthusiasm before a recent Italy game:

Oh, the weird blond in the background dancing and making immature gestures to Italy's national anthem? That would be me, of course. My husband and son were scandalised by my irreverent behaviour. I just call it the "anthem shimmy." Forgive me if I don't share in the gravitas of the whole thing!

Anyway, it's old news by now that Italy lost to Slovakia yesterday. And that WE WERE ROBBED by those LOUSY refs! etcetera...

Luckily, we are a dual citizenship household. Now that Italy has been sidelined, our loyalties have immediately shifted to the US team. Keep your fingers crossed for the game against Ghana tomorrow. Go USA!

Do you think I can teach Danny the American national anthem by tomorrow evening? How does it go? "Oh, say can you see"...and then? Why don't I know it by heart the way Italians know theirs? Admittedly, theirs is catchier, with more rhyming lines and a lot of yelling DEATH, DEATH at the end. Such drama...

Are you watching the World Cup? Willingly? Or, like me, to keep a loved one happy?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Know-It-All

Let me just start by saying that, yes, I do realise that this is not a new book. It was published four whole years ago in 2006, and A.J. Jacobs has published other books since then, but it is new to me and I wanted to share it because I am finding it hilarious.

When I say hilarious I mean laugh-out-loud-all-by-yourself-on-the-train-and-try-to-ignore-everyone-looking-at-you-like-you-are-a-nutcase hilarious, not just your run-of-the-mill garden variety hilarious. This book is guaranteed belly laughs every time you pick it up.

The premise is that Jacobs was feeling a little bit rusty in the knowledge department and so he decided to read the entire Encylopedia Britannica from A to Z. Along the way he recounts the highlights of all the funniest, most profound or truly odd facts, while intermingling them with and relating them to his daily life, his personal neuroses, and his family relationships.

I love early on where he frames the motives behind his quest partially in his childhood belief that he was "the smartest boy in the world." In the entry for "atrophy" he writes:

I didn't just think that I was smart. I thought that I was really smart. I thought that I was, in fact, the smartest boy in the world. I'm honestly not sure how this notion popped into my head. My mom probably had something to do with it, seeing as she was only slightly less enamored of me than I was of myself. And it's true, I did pretty well on tests, sometimes notching up the highest score in the class. As my mom likes to remind me, on one geography quiz, I got so cocky, I wrote "New Joizy" instead of "New Jersey." Ha! In any case, with my handful of good fourth-grade test scores as evidence, I somehow made the logical deduction that no other ten-year-old on planet Earth was my intellectual equal. It's a leap, yes. But in my defense, I hadn't taken any high-level statistics courses. At the time, it just somehow made sense. I could just feel that I was unique in some way (again, my mom told me so).

I love it because, I too, was *sure* that I was the smartest kid alive, in my day. And my mom was always full of compliments that helped reinforce that belief in me. What a bummer to slowly figure out that there were a lot of people out there who were a whole lot smarter than me. Perhaps if I had been more intelligent I would have figured that one out sooner...

His goal of reading all recorded knowledge from A to Z also reminds me of when, at around age 10, I decided to read every book in the Berkely Public Library children's section in alphabetical order. I petered out somewhere about halfway through the Cs. Who knew there were going to be all those dreadful books for boys about camping and shooting at things with arrows?

If by chance you don't have the time to read the complete Encyclopedia yourself, you can check out Jacob's website for an excerpt from the book and this handy conversation guide:

You don't need to know it all to be a know-it-all. You just have to know one key fact about every topic under the sun. Here, a handy guide to any conversation:

Topic: Philosophy
Fact: French philosopher René Descartes had a fetish for cross-eyed women.

Topic: Plays
Fact: George Bernard Shaw sat for a very early nude photo in the pose of Rodin's Thinker.

Topic: Medicine
Fact: Bayer aspirin invented heroin.

Topic: Movies
Fact: Humphrey Bogart invented the phrase "Tennis anyone?" when he was a Broadway actor playing rich guys.

Topic: Sex
Fact: Elephant copulation lasts twenty seconds.

Topic: Books
Fact: Edgar Allan Poe married his thirteen-year-old first cousin, making him the Jerry Lee Lewis of his day.

Topic: Sports
Fact: Touchdowns used to be worth two points and field goals were five points.

Topic: Politics
Fact: George Washington's false teeth were not made of wood; they were made of human teeth and elephant ivory.

A.J. Jacobs has since written two more books which I really hope I can get my hands on because the reviews I have read sound fun. They are The Guinea Pig Diaries and The Year of Living Biblically.

What are you reading right now?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Such a Bargain!

I have always been a sucker for bargains. As a child one of my very favorite things to do was to go to flea-markets with my parents and poke through other people's moldy, dusty old rejects. My area of specialty was Millie the Model comic books. Millie lived in a hip, beautiful world with hip, beautiful people all dressed in hip, beautiful different from my whole-grain, hippy, comune lifestyle! And who could pass by a yard sale without stopping? Who knew what great albums or old books the sellers might have!

In the '80s, I was a big fan of vintage clothes. In those days, you could find amazing stuff at low prices in thrift shops or at the Goodwill: 1950s sequined sweaters, tight-fitting beaded dresses, calfskin gloves, odd little hats. I had a lot of fun dressing quirkily for very little investment.

Well, I haven't done much of that kind of shopping since living in provincial southern Italy. The concept of dollar or secondhand shops is new down here. In fact, when I first arrived here in the early '90s the emphasis was on demonstrating affluence at all costs. Not only did everyone wear designer brands, but they bragged about them, pointed them out to their friends, discussed comparative costs and quality of brands.

I thought they had their priorities skewed; they thought I was weird! But, trying to fit in to new places has been my thing for forever (I had never lived longer than 2 years in any one house in my whole life before moving here: assimilation became an essential life skill for me early on!), so my vintage clothes quickly disappeared. Imagine my irritation a couple of years ago when vintage came back into style...even here in the deep, dark south!

But, recently bargain shopping has taken on a new meaning for me and my family. It's called: necessity. The global economic crisis has crept into every corner of the world and, unfortunately, that includes me and my pocketbook! My salary has remained its pitiful self for years (I am even getting less free-lance translation work than usual), while prices and the cost of living in general are skyrocketing.

Hence, my joy at stumbling onto a bunch of bargain bins at the local Coop superstore. Check out what I got...

Great summer sandals for my son for only €1!

Even Piedina the dog wants a pair! Her name does mean "Little Foot" so maybe she's thinking she needs some little footwear...

And attractive plastic salad tongs for only 20 euro cents each!

I also got a periwinkle blue t-shirt, good for either myself or my older son, for €1 and a flannel sheet for €3.
Now if only I could get a raise...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

End of Elementary School

My younger son, Gabri, has just finished 5th grade, which is the end of elementary school here in Italy. He spent the past five years with the same group of 25 classmates and the same four teachers (one for math & sciences, one for Italian, one for history, geography and English, and one for religion). That makes for a lot of shared history: long-term friendships and enmities, love-hate relationships with teachers, and a lot of "remember the time..." memories.

Leaving that cocoon of certainties is not easy for the children, their parents or even the teachers, who have come to know and understand each of their students in his or her strengths and weaknesses. Next year, the teachers will start the process again with a fresh batch of first-graders, while my son and his classmates will separate and start anew in one of the three junior high schools in town.

But September (or maybe not until October if some wacky politicians get their way!) and thoughts of new schools and new friends seem quite distant now in June.

To celebrate the end of school, the families of Gabri's class got together with the teachers and had a "end of elementary school" party at the countryside villa of one family. Although the kids and teachers have been together all these years, not all of the parents know each other. Early on at the party, polite social intentions were good...but the moment was awkward. Someone brightly decided it would be a good idea to set up a circle of chairs for people to sit on. Is there anything more deadly for comfortable social interaction between strangers than a circle of chairs?
Look at all those crossed arms...

...and nervous facial touching!

I would have loved to have put these photos all together side by side, but my technical skills fail me! Anyway, I think the discomfort and unease just jump right out of the photos, don't you?

And where are all the dads? Well, luckily for everyone, one of the dads showed up not too long after the glum circle of doom incident....bearing a large jug of homemade wine. And, man, was that wine potent! I had just two sips and my head started spinning...I am not kidding! Needless to say, the party really loosened up and livened up after that! We all got to know each other and became great friends faster than you can say "moonshine." The parents laughed so hard they fell off their seats during the kids theatrical production of Snow White. It was in English (which most of them probably didn't understand) and not a comedy...

It's a strange feeling for both my son and I to think that this phase of our lives is over. But, that's the way life is, isn't it? Full of endings and new beginnings. We can only treasure what we have experienced so far and look forward expectantly to what is to come.