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Cose italiane (Italian things)

11 Apr

11 April 2017. This time of year I always think about cleaning out the closets, assessing spring and summer clothes, putting away the puffy jacket and wool sweaters. That inevitably made me think of how Italians do the seasonal cambio as well as other cultural difference. I hope you’ll enjoy this entry from a year ago. Happy Easter! Happy Spring!

The following was originally posted 11 April 2016.

Even after almost four years in Italy, there are things that strike me as uniquely Italian and a bit amusing.  

Cheek kissing

Funny how cheek kissing has become normal to us. You do not meet a friend on the street – male or female – without doing il bacetto, the little kiss. Even waiters and shopkeepers will do this with frequent and favorite customers. I’ve seen burly Carabinieri officers smooch my U.S. law enforcement colleagues. Famously, Italian politicians attempt to assault American presidents.  Il bacetto is a little air kiss, not a big wet smack and it takes some getting used to in order to execute one smoothly. When a group of friends breaks up after coffee, drinks, or dinner it can take a while for everyone to properly bid adieu as one cannot depart without giving il bacetto to each person. And then you have to say “Ciao, buonasera!” about a dozen times. No fast exits.  


President Bush doesn't quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

President Bush doesn’t quite know what to do when Italian Premier Berlusconi goes in for the bacetto. Remember: Always go to the right first!

Il Cambio di stagione

Many Italians let the calendar decide their clothing. 80 degrees (F) in early April? Better keep a scarf around your neck just-in-case. You wouldn’t want to catch la cervicale (pain in the cervical vertebrae) or un colpo d’aria (literally “a hit of  air”)! These are Italian ailments that are hard to explain in English but are taken very seriously. A blast of air on your neck, throat, or head is the root cause of all illness. Although the temps have had Ric and I pulling out our short-sleeved attire, sending the wool sweaters to the dry cleaner, and assessing what new warm-weather clothes we need, we still see many Italians in their puffy winter jackets and heavy wools with scarf-wrapped necks. While in the morning it might be a pleasant 55F and the jacket is not too terribly hot, by afternoon it is 75F, way beyond needing the jacket. But it is too soon to do Il Cambio! Cold weather might come back!
When we lived in Portland, all of our clothes were in our substantial walk-in closet. I might shove the winter stuff to the back when warmer temps prevailed, and the short-sleeved tee-shirts came to the top of the drawer, but basically I could find warmer clothes in a couple of minutes.
The typical Italian household does not have a lot of closet space. We use wardrobes for what we are wearing now and some sort of under-the-bed or overhead storage for the other season. Typically, we have only about half of our clothes at hand. Il cambio (the seasonal change out of the closet) is a big thing twice each year. Sometime in April, but generally closer to May 1, Italians pull out the ladder to get things down from the overhead closets and unwrap the items in the under bed chests, deciding what to keep and what to recycle. Ric and I, in a decidedly non-Italian way, are well into il cambio but the temps did drop a bit the other day. I just hope we don’t freeze our necks when we go to dinner tonight. Maybe I’ll look for a scarf to wear with my spring jacket.
The only closets in our apartment are desigend for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

The only closets in our apartment are designed for off-season storage, high overhead in the service hallway.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm -- about 39 inches -- wide.

Our bedroom wardrobes, one each, 100cm — about 39 inches — wide.

Il cambio mostly compelte, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

Il cambio mostly complete, my spring and summer clothes now fill my wardrobe.

I love the wardrobe versus the American-style closet. I can see everything and I am forced into being quite orderly. 


Scarves & sundresses

As I mentioned above, a scarf is a way of protecting you from la cervicale. If the wind blows on your neck, you could become very ill. (Yes, you can call in sick with la cervicale. Try to explain that to your U.S. or U.K. supervisor.) You can also get colpo d’aria. So you will see women wearing scarves with sundresses. Air conditioning is generally considered to be a hazard to health, so if you have to go into somewhere cold (i.e., below about 80F) you want to be protected.
She is not taking any chances at developing cervicale!

She is not taking any chances of developing la cervicale!

Cornetti in the hand

When an Italian goes into a bar and orders a cornetto (croissant) and un caffè, typically the barista will grab the cornetto with a napkin and hand it to the patron, then turn to make the requisite espresso. The cornetto is generally eaten standing up, using the napkin to hold it, and is eaten before downing the shot of espresso, which is liberally laced with sugar. It’s all very fast, maybe 2 or 3 minutes for consuming the pastry as well as drinking the coffee. In fact, Starbucks cannot make a shot as fast as an Italian can consume this entire meal in a bar.
While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. ONe always eats oneàs corentto wrappedin a napkin. More sanitary.

While we indulged in a seated caffè e cornetto today, Ric demos the technique. One always eats oneàs cornetto wrapped in a napkin. More sanitary.

When we go into the bar and order cornetti, 95% of the time they pull out plates and set our pastries on them. I actually like that as we tend to linger a bit more, but isn’t it funny in this land of slow paced living and reverence for food, the bar breakfast is consumed at lightning speed? And how do they metabolize all that sugar every day? We can’t do it and we walk 6-7 kilometers a day.



August is a weird month. So many people go on vacation at the same time that the nightmare traffic disappears and parking places are everywhere. How can so many people arrange their lives to be on vacation at the same time? Hospitals send patients home. Doctors’ offices close. Restaurants close so the entire staff can be gone at the same time. Buses are on a reduced schedule , special for August.
I love it. You can’t get anything done, but the city is so empty it is marvelous. You have to live it to believe it. And this does not happen in the center, in the tourist area. That remains hopping.
This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening,. Usually it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.

This is Viale Parioli, the major shopping street a few minutes walk from our apartment, in August at 17:30 in the evening. Usually, it is a hubbub of cars, motorcycles, buses and people scurrying to do their shopping.


When I was young and watched movies set in New York City, I would marvel at apartment buildings with “supers” and doormen. We had no such thing as far as I knew in St. Paul, Minnesota. How glamorous would it be to live that way!
In Italy, we have portieri. A portiere is a combination caretaker-concierge-postman-security guard. He – or she – will clean the common areas, collect your mail and packages, keep an eye out for trouble ensuring unsavory elements stay out of the building, and give advice. He’ll help you carry heavy packages to your door, assist the elderly up-and-down the stairs, and in our case, give the occasional Italian lesson.
One evening we lamented to Italian friends the problems we had with trying a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription because they’d deliver when we were not home and the produce would wilt in the sun in our driveway. Our friend  was shocked to hear we did not have a portiere to take the delivery in for us.
It is traditional to give the portiere a gift three times a year: Christmas, Easter, and Ferragosto. The latter is the mid-August holiday initiated by Caesar Augustus. Why then? Because the portiere stays on duty to ensure the safety of the property while everyone else is on vacation. If you have a portiere the incidence of burglaries is reduced.
Nothing happens in our building, on our street, or even in the neighborhood that our portiere doesn’t know about. He’s a font of intel when we need it.
Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired...but still helping us out every day. He calls himself "The Sheriff" and he is alwasy watching out for us.

Our fabulous portiere Pellegrino. Actually his wife is the portiera, and he is retired…but still helping us out every day. He calls himself “The Sheriff” and he is always watching out for us.

What I look forward to in the U.S.

26 Oct
26 October 2016. One day to go! We walk around Rome alternately maudlin and delighted. While we are ready to move on to the next adventure, we will miss many things about this magnificent city. Walking to dinner in any number of neighborhoods, enjoying the architecture, stopping in any little bar for a good coffee. Pizza. But the romance of Roma and thoughts of staying can be dashed in an instant by a tangle with bureaucracy, and as we try to depart there are daily tangles. Save me from service businesses that close for lunch just when I need to run an errand, like at 2:00PM two days before we move!
This is part four of my four-part series on what I will miss and not miss in Italy and the U.S. Here’s what I am looking forward to in the U.S.
My clothes dryer in summer. In the winter the "dryer" is in the second bedroom.

My clothes dryer in summer. In the winter the “dryer” is in the second bedroom.

  • Clothes dryers. Hanging clothes out to dry is not too bad in the summer. In the winter it can take 48 hours for jeans to dry and I have to set up a drying rack in the second bedroom. Doing sheets and towels without a dryer is a chore I would gladly skip. And without a dryer, one has to do a lot more ironing. Dryers also take the lint and cat hair off my black tee shirts.
  • Running multiple appliances at the same time. I cannot iron while I wash clothes. We cannot make coffee and toast at the same time unless we are really lucky. The washer and the electric tea kettle running simultaneously can also pop the circuit. The cure is a trip down four floors to the basement to reset the breaker. We are looking forward to electrical service that can handle multiple appliances at one time, as well as to less ironing.
  • Ethnic food. Mexican, Tex-Mex, Thai, Sushi, Vietnamese, Indian, and HALIBUT! Oh, I have missed halibut! We have great food in Italy. GREAT food. But I miss having some good alternatives.
  • Using my superb English skills. My Italian has gotten pretty good but I still do not understand much about the culture and how things work. Politics defies understanding unless you grew up here, I think. It is difficult for me to stand my ground, to argue when something isn’t going my way. It’s a national past-time here. I do that VERY well in English.
  • Netflix and Vudu got all cranky a few months ago and will no longer stream dependably through a VPN so we cannot get all the American content we want in Italy. Luckily Amazon Prime Video works most of the time.
  • Family and friends and easy visits with the people we love. We have had a wonderful time hosting people here, but it’s not as easy as having a monthly dinner date. I miss my girlfriend time (Voyageur Femmes, I am speaking of you!). Looking ahead to Thanksgiving in Seattle and Christmas in Durango!
  • The Portland Farmers’ Market. While it’s only held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and it’s only there for 9 months of the year, it’s a lot of fun. I am looking forward to finding more options to buy direct from the farmer and not only the produce but also meat and poultry. Santa Rosa-style burrito, anyone?
  • Talbots, Nordstrom, Zappos, and I love online shopping. Period. Nothing more to say.
  • Pinot Noir from Oregon. There is wonderful wine in Italy, of course, and it is inexpensive, but Oregon Pinot Noir is something special. In the U.S., we can get wine from anywhere in the world. In Italy, you get wine from Italy. 
  • Going out to breakfast now-and-then. (Hashbrowns and bacon!) No one in Italy knows how to make a decent omelet. Frittata, yes, but not omelets. Hashbrowns do not exist outside of the commissary at the U.S. Embassy, and I don’t have access to that anymore. However, I don’t think Ric nor I can down the big breakfast these days. We’ll have to split a portion. 
  • Reading the Sunday paper. Such a nice thing to do on a Sunday morning. I might wait until after the election, though. Well after. 
We are packed. The last shipment through Mail Boxes Etc. was dropped off today. We have the travel certificate for Janie Gray. Now, what have I forgotten?


2 Oct
1 October 2016. What to do with our stuff? Uncle Sam is not paying for this move, although he graciously shipped what little we declared precious-to-us upon our retirement. We did not want to pay for 18 months of storage for things easily replaced so we only shipped only 1100 pounds back to Portland. (For reference, when we moved to Roma, we shipped 11,000 pounds of household goods.) We have no furniture in storage and few household goods. Stored for our return are artwork, Ric’s collectible trains, some family crystal and other memorabilia, a few books. Not much more. We sold a lot of stuff when we moved from the embassy apartment to our own place on Via Ruggero Fauro.
My guardaroba or wardrobe. Much better than a closet.

My guardaroba or wardrobe. Much better than a closet.

We took a few pieces of furniture to our mostly-furnished retirement rental, but nothing worth shipping across the ocean. As most American homes come with closets, our guardarobe (which we LOVE) are unnecessary.
We had hoped to keep a few more things and ship them back, especially two 8’x10′ carpets we love. However, shipping is a very expensive prospect. After receiving a bid on sending back the rugs, clothes, pots and pans, and this-and-that, we decided it would be far more fun to spend that much cash on buying new than sending old. It was a crazy amount of money.
This is the first pass at clearing out. The JNRC will receive it all.

This is the first pass at clearing out. The JNRC will receive it all.

Our landlady will take some furnishings that add value to the apartment for the next tenants (our European T.V., the guardarobe, a desk, lamps). Other items will go to the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. They will take all the men’s clothes and shoes we can gather, my old and heavy sewing machine, some kitchen gear. Our Peruvian housekeeper is taking women’s clothes which her family in Peru is anxious to have. (This is a thing. Our doctor told us his mother and sister give their clothes to their foreign-born housekeepers, too.) What these sources won’t take will go to Roman recycling: the street, where the pickers will claim it in about 65 seconds. (See Changing House from May 2015.)
We are shipping things one 10-kilo box at a time through Mailboxes, Etc. The cost will be a fraction of that for shipping what we had hoped to send through the transfer company.
We will ship only clothes we love and that fit. We are not packing I-might-use-these tee-shirts or if-I-lose-five-pounds jeans. Only one pair of heels for me as I have worn heels about four times in the past 18 months. No sheets or towels (easily replaceable and pretty old anyway), no 15-year-old flatware, no toiletries except those we need for the trip home. I think Ric is down to owning three pairs of shoes instead of eight. I have a way to go on that front. Thinking about it, when we travel we pack only two pairs of shoes each, three bottoms, five-or-six tops, a couple of layering pieces, and a jacket, yet we manage for up to four weeks on the road. We don’t really need all that stuff in the wardrobe. The challenge is not getting caught up in replacing all of it. I sure could use some new pajamas, though. I haven’t bought new in about two years. I feel a Nordstrom order coming on….

Four weeks to go!

29 Sep
29 September 2016. Four weeks from today we fly out of Roma, headed back to Portland. This was not an easy decision and throughout the next few weeks I will share some of our departure activities as well as thoughts on separating from Italy. It’s been four-and-a-half lovely years, which have passed like a nanosecond!
The path that brought us to Italy was accidental at best.
  • 2008 – Ric got his first passport in 40 years and said, “Let’s go to Europe.” I had been begging to go for years. All he ever wanted to do was go to Hawaii. He thought Europe was just full of old stuff. I said, “The U.K., France, or Italy: You pick and I’ll plan the trip.” So Italy is his fault.
  • March 2009 – I started Italian courses at Portland Community College. One night each week. Let me tell you, it was not enough.

    Atop Basilica San Marco, October 2010, where we fell in love with Italy.

    Atop Basilica San Marco, October 2010, where we fell in love with Italy.

  • October 2010 – We took a three-week trip to Italy. On Day 4, Ric famously said (while sitting in the sun in Venice drinking wine), “This is fabulous. We have to come back.”
  • We started joking about moving to Italy. If a job came up in Europe, should I try for it? Could we afford it? They’d never pick me, would they?
  • I applied for positions in Copenhagen and London and was rejected. In September 2011, I applied for Rome, never believing I’d be selected for such a big demotion.

    At Pompeii, December 2011.

    At Pompeii, December 2011.

  • December 2011 – We took a one-month trip to Italy. Yup, still loved it! On Morning 3, I woke up to an email from my boss asking “Did you want to move to Rome?” He had no idea I had applied.
  • After a winter and spring spent moving the entire organization to a newly constructed building I would never work in, in May 2012 Ric retired and we hauled the two cats to Rome. I accepted a 50% cut in pay and went from executive to secretary. I never looked back.
Libby and Janie, ready to fly to Rome, 2012!

Libby and Janie, ready to fly to Rome, 2012!

For three years we (Ric qualified for a part-time job in security) had the pleasure of working in the American Embassy in Rome. What a dream! I served with some very smart and committed people (I did in Portland, too) and had the privilege to learn how an embassy works, to meet people from many government agencies, and to make Italian friends. We went to the Marine Corps Ball and receptions at the Ambassador’s villa. We lived in a lovely apartment provided by the embassy that had no English-speaking tenants. THAT helped my Italian improve!
Settled in Rome, attending the Marine Corps Ball.

Settled in Rome, attending the Marine Corps Ball.

We loved the convenience of travel from Rome and took full advantage of any time off to see more of Italy and start to experience more of Europe. We could hop on a train and go anywhere!
At the end of my tour-of-duty, we were not ready to return to the U.S. The notion of work-as-we-knew-it was anathema. I was eligible to retire. Why not?
The 18-months since we retired have been a completely different adventure and one we would not trade for anything. My Italian is quite passable now as there are few people (mostly just Ric) that I can speak to in English. We have learned how things do and do not work without the loving embrace of the American Embassy. We have found medical services that are extraordinary and very personalized. We discovered that Poste Italiane is pretty dependable but very expensive. I ragazzi at the Via Sicilia office are particularly nice.
Here we are with our portiere, Pellegrino, who has been a friend and a blessing.

Here we are with our portiere, Pellegrino, who has been a friend and a blessing.

But it is time to go back to the U.S. It is time to re-establish a household of our own (we’ve been subletting a furnished place). We have experienced some of the frustrations Italians have with their own country and bureaucracy and while the U.S. is not perfect, things really do work quite well there. In the U.S., you can return items when you change your mind or they don’t fit and they will refund to your credit card. Not in Italy! In the U.S., you can turn on the heat in October if it is cold. Not in Italy!
Today we went to disconnect our cable and Internet service. They require 60 days notice so we have to pay through November even though we will turn in the equipment on the 27th of October. Can you imagine? Two months notice to disconnect a service? 
In the U.S., we can depend on certain services and we know how to argue when something does not work well. I’ve gotten better are standing up to service providers in Italian, but it is a strain to have to argue over everything since arguing is a national sport.
Allora, we will always come back annually to Italy as travelers for as long as we are able. Despite my sarcasm, we have a fondness for the people and the culture, but to travel here is far different than to live here. And we would never give up our passports. Never.
Stay tuned as the departure adventure unfolds. I know Janie is excited.

Hot town: summer in the city

4 Aug
4 August 2016. There is a hush over Rome that arrived earlier this year than in the past. Since our return from the Dolomites we’ve noticed traffic is already lighter. We cross the street almost without looking. Motorini do not disturb our sleep even with windows ajar.There are many empty parking spots on our street, although double-parking still plagues the commercial streets. Some stores are closed for the entire month. Are the Romans already off to the beach for their summer holidays?
Sure sign of August: closures everywhere. This on a cellular service storein our neighborhood. They'll be back AUgust 29.

Sure sign of August: closures everywhere. This on a cellular service store in our neighborhood. They’ll be back August 29.

It’s dreadfully hot: 35C/95F today. We pity the workers pouring concrete in the courtyard of our apartment building after replacing a gas line, as well as the guys doing construction on ritzy apartments whose dwellers have gone off to the beach during the renovation. But there are heat lovers: the sadistic bus drivers who do not turn on the A/C until afternoon. The 1940s-era trams that have no A/C are to be avoided after 10:00. 
How to survive in a city of bricks and pavement that retains more heat day-after-day, full of Italians who think air conditioning is the devil’s work? It’s all about taking advantage of the (relatively) cool morning and evening hours. We do not have A/C in the apartment or we’d turn it on full blast and wear sweaters to compensate. We had such great exercise in the Dolomites last month we do not want to backslide. But walking in 90-plus degree (Fahrenheit) heat is not an option. (The highs in Ortisei were lower than the lows in Rome right now.)
So here is how we structure our days.
October in Portland? No, it is August in Rome. The big trees on Viale Parioli have not had significant rain for awhile. Still they offer a welcome canopy as we shop.

October in Portland? No, it is August in Rome. The big trees on Viale Parioli have not had significant rain for awhile. Still, they offer a welcome canopy as we shop.

Up at 5:00AM, we open the house and allow the cooler air in, lighting citronella candles to keep the mosquitoes out while we have coffee and feed the cats. Only our bedroom has screens and we had to pay to have those installed. It’s about 22 Celsius in the morning. That’s 72 F. When we hit the sack at 10:30 or so, it’s still 29C/84F. We do our errands and appointments — always walking an hour at least — as early as possible so we can be out and back before 11:00. Or, as we did this morning with no big errands to run, we might take a purposeful walk of 90 minutes, leaving at 6:15-or-so, when the city is quiet and walking is tolerable. Home by 8:00 (stopping for cappuccino, of course!) we shower and then run to the store for any fresh food we might need. By 8:45, as the sun creeps up over the building next door, we have to close the windows and the heavy Italian serrande that hold the heat out. We become cave dwellers, leaving only a small cat-height opening onto the terrace as the girls still like to bake themselves. It is so dark with the serrande down, we have to use lights all day.
New on the street this year: motorino sharing from ZigZag. Three-wheelers.

New on the street this year: motorino-sharing from ZigZag. Three-wheelers.

Fans are on high, and we sit around the dining room table with laptops, both fans aimed for maximum air-blast. If we had Italian mothers they would be shocked. Air blowing on you can cause an illness called colpa d’aria. Or we may move a fan with us to a different part of the apartment to facilitate a chore: chopping up ingredients for dinner in the kitchen, for example. Use the oven? Certainly not, at least not after 7:00AM. We use the crockpot, but even that generates some heat. Salads are our friends these hot days and nights. We watch some TV, we read, write, manage finances, shop online, plan trips.
About dinner time (20:00) we can think about opening a couple of windows as we do not face west. Is there a breeze to catch so we can cool off the house a bit before bedtime? We light the citronella candles again against the dreaded mosquitoes. (Why don’t Italians do screens? Instead, they close the shutters tight and sleep in the hot rooms, fearful of killer night breezes and mosquitoes.) After dinner, we might take a stroll just to get some air and stretch our legs.
This store decided to only be open from 16:00-20:00 for 3 weeks.

This store decided to only be open from 16:00-20:00 for 3 weeks.

One evening we bravely took a bus at 17:00 (the street was shady at least, in the 31C/88F temp) to a movie theatre, where we basked in air-conditioned comfort for two hours. Then we walked an hour home in the relative comfort after 20:00. Another night we ventured to the opera at the Baths of Caracalla; starting time, 21:00. There is a lot that goes on after dark in summer and people come alive embracing the night time for socializing and getting out. Dinners run past midnight in many restaurants.
At bedtime,  we have to close up everything except the bedroom (so happy to have screens on the terrace doors!) and aim the best fan right at the bed. We sleep like the dead as with a diminished number of people in the city the motorini passing on our street are also miraculously few.
The beauty of Rome in summer is that it is eerily quiet and it’s kind of fun to wander around in the crepuscular hours.  We will live this way until September 7 when we head off on another trip. Somehow, magically, when we turn the page to September the heat is not so intolerable. The Roman sun follows the order of the universe and nights will mercifully drop below 20C/68F. We might even turn off the fans.
Not to be outdone, Enjoy, a cooperative effort with the national train service and ENI a fuel supplier, adds motorini to their car-sharing fleet.

Not to be outdone, Enjoy, a cooperative effort with the national train service and ENI a fuel supplier, added motorini to their car-sharing fleet.

If you’d like to read about past impressions of life-in-Rome in August, here are links to 2012, 2013, and 2014. (2015 we were in the U.S. lapping up the air conditioning.)
August 2014
August 2013
August 2012
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