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Ex expat

15 Jan
14 January 2017. Twelve weeks ago we were still roaming in Rome. Seems like a distant memory, almost a dream.
When I see photos on Facebook by my friends in Italy, I really miss it. Walking around at Christmas was a biggie. My heart wanted to be there; However, my mind knew the crowds and the usual problems would make me crazy.
Personally, I don’t miss living in Rome, but I do miss our Italian lifestyle if that makes any sense.
We miss the being able to do most of our errands on foot.
We walked everywhere in Rome. If a bus was not coming, we walked home. That is not remotely feasible in Portland where we are staying with our son. Case in point, yesterday we spent 30 minutes waiting for a bus delayed due to the snow. In Rome, even if we were all the way across town we just would’ve started walking because it was possible to walk home in an hour-or-so from almost anywhere. There is no feasible route to do that here.
Not to mention it’s just incredibly beautiful to walk through Rome. Just saying. But then Oregon has some damn fine scenic elements. 
Walking was our major form of exercise, something we accomplished almost without trying. I cannot get to 10,000 steps here without making a major expedition. Hoping I can change that big time when we move to the Oregon Coast next month.
We miss being able to walk to-and-from dinner.
In Rome, we could not only walk across town but could walk to dozens of restaurants we would be excited to dine at. And we would work off the calories by walking at least one way most of the time. It’s terrific to walk 20, 40, or even 60 minutes after a nice dinner. 
We miss coffee bars and cheap, high-quality cappuccini.
In Italy, it is a God-given right to have a great cappuccino for about €1.10. That’s about $1.17. A great cappuccino served at a table outside a little cafe, possibly with a gooey chocolate cornetto that cost €.90. For €4.00 ($4.26) we would have our repast. Since we frequented Bar Ponte Milvio, we would leave a Euro now and then for our friendly server and the guys behind the bar.
By contrast, this morning, we paid $11.00 for two black coffees and two pastries, we served ourselves, and they expected a tip! The pastries were good, but seriously?
I miss speaking Italian.
Luckily I have a class “Keeping up in Italian” starting next week, and I play Parole con Amici (Words with Friends) daily to keep my head in it. OTOH, I do love understanding everything that is said and going on around me and being able to make myself understood in a grammatically correct manner. 
We miss hopping on a train.
Ah, the ease of travel in Europe! We could go anywhere as long as we had a cat sitter. Tuscany for the weekend? Venice just for dinner? (Yeah, we did that once and spent the night.) Joyriding to Paris via Milano beat flying. Now we will have to mount a major expedition just to visit. And flying is a necessary part of U.S. travel. (I can’t see hopping on the Empire Builder to go to Minnesota and taking 37 hours.)
We miss excellent wines at a non-budget-busting price.
Wine in stores in the U.S. is not priced too badly, but in restaurants, well, apparently thievery is not illegal. $11.00 for a glass of wine is not uncommon. We could buy a bottle of decent Sicilian wine in a restaurant for about $17.00.
We do have a fine Farmer’s Market in Portland. Fine, especially if the weather is good. It’s tough to get there in the snow.
OK, enough whining. Yes, we knew we’d miss this stuff. We knew what the U.S. was like and we came back anyway. You know why? Because STUFF WORKS HERE.
  • You can run all of your appliances at the same time without blowing a circuit and you can afford to pay the bill afterward.
  • We have a clothes dryer. I can do three loads of clothes before noon, including sheets, which would have taken an entire day to dry in our spare bedroom during winter.
  • You can buy anything you want at most large grocery stores. Not only food but lightbulbs, batteries, cosmetics, greeting cards, gifts, stamps. You do not have to go to four different specialty stores. And you can get cash from the cashier when you use your debit card. I’d completely forgotten about that convenience.
  • You do not need to have €200.00 cash in your pocket to get you through the week. Debit cards are magically accepted even for a coffee. (But then a coffee can cost $3.00 so why not?)
  • No one sneers at credit cards and you can return items if you make a buying error. This is no small thing.
  • Nice clothes are affordable and there are petite sizes for those of us who are height challenged. Funny how you can buy clothes made of Italian wool in the U.S. at an affordable price point but you can hardly find them in Italy.
  • You can go to a bank and talk to a teller without waiting 20 minutes. And the teller will be pleasant and bend over backward to help.
  • The Internet really is a fast web. (Play on words there. Our provider in Rome was “FastWeb” and they weren’t. Fast, that is.)
  • The buses come when they are supposed to, and tell you when they are late. We have an app that tells us when the bus is scheduled and that gives real time updates as to actual arrival. So if traffic is heavy and the bus is moving slowly, you know it before you leave the house. Buses never just disappear as they did in Rome. Knowing when the bus is coming is a big deal and Rome has not mastered that service.
  • My cousin calls the U.S. the “Land of Stuff.” That is good news and bad news. We over consume in the U.S. OTOH, you can satisfy a lot of desires and solve a lot of problems with the products available to us here.
  • Online shopping is superb. Amazon and Alexa, we love you.
  • The U.S. Post Office, bastion of good service that it is, should be a role model for the world.
People, of course, were a major factor in moving back to the U.S. We have enjoyed the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays with family for the first time in years, and are enjoying dinners with friends when we can get out of the frozen wasteland of our neighborhood. (There have been two major snow events and one minor one since mid-December. Having a car has been a bit of a joke.) Being on the same continent as your family has benefits.
It is more expensive to live in the U.S. We did not move back as a shrewd financial move. It would have been more affordable to live in Italy, from a strictly dollars-and-cents perspective. However, I don’t think I would want to grow very old in Rome. It’s just not an easy place to live, period. We are, after all, and for better or worse, Americans.
We will be back, Italy! To visit. 

 

Back to reality

4 Nov
3 November 2016. Returning to the U.S. has not been without surprises. It still amazes us to walk into a grocery store and see the embarrassment of riches available in the land of stuff. Sure, the shelf space devoted to pasta is minuscule compared to that in Italy, but my God we have everything in our markets! From French cheese to cosmetics and prepared foods, we can get it all in one stop. Italy has its many charms, but I can appreciate an efficient supermarket and access to food items other than Italian.
Here are some of our observations after a few days of wandering around Portland:
Yup, lots of olives here, but at double the price we paid in Roma!

Yup, lots of olives here, but at double the price we paid in Roma!

  1. The reason people order 400-calorie flavored lattes at Starbucks is to cover up the taste of the coffee.
  2. Mendicants will give you a sincere compliment when hitting you up for a donation. Apparently my color coordination was quite stunning, according to one panhandler. I did not donate to his cause.
  3. People park where they are supposed to.
  4. We had forgotten about samples in the grocery store. You can practically have lunch walking through an American market.

    We had forgotten about samples in the grocery store. You can practically have lunch walking through an American market.

    Boxed wine takes more shelf space at Fred Meyer than pasta does in our little market in Parioli.
  5. You cannot live without a car if you live more than a couple of miles from the city center. It took me 2 transfers and 75 minutes to go 9 miles in Portland on public transportation: Bus to MAX light rail to Portland Streetcar. Ridiculous. 
  6. Food is crazily expensive in the U.S. and the price of wine is criminal. 
So many people have asked what’s going on with our return, I thought I would add a quick rundown of the past week.
We happened upon a wedding at the city hall while wandering around Frankfurt.

We happened upon a wedding at the city hall while wandering around Frankfurt.

We flew out of Roma to Frankfurt on Thursday, October 27. We spent two nights there so Janie, our sweet 20-year-old cat, could recover from the shorter flight before the long one to the West Coast. Just going to Frankfurt, she had to be in her carrier for 6 hours what with the transfer from home to FCO, waiting time, flight time, and getting to the NH Hotel at FRA. Janie did well with the flight and hotel stay. She explored our room extensively then settled in to take a nap.
Janie relaxes with her mousie at the NH Hotel, Frankfurt,

Janie relaxes with her mousie at the NH Hotel, Frankfurt,

On the 29th we took the overwater 10+ hour flight to Seattle on Condor Airlines. You might ask why the routing FCO-FRA-SEA when we needed to go to Portland. There are precious few carriers that allow animals in the cabin on an over water flight: only KLM/Delta, Lufthansa, and Condor. KLM/Delta out of Amsterdam to Portland was crazily expensive and Condor offered some attractive pricing out of Frankfurt. Our seats cost less on Condor and they charged half as much for the cat under-the-seat, for example, as Delta did four years ago.
Waiting at FCO, Janie has a look around.

Waiting at FCO, Janie has a look around.

The 29th was a long, long day for all of us. We nabbed premium economy seats so with Janie under my feet we had a little extra legroom. I took her out four times in flight, scofflaw that I am, for cuddles and to check the cleanliness of her carrier. Fifteen hours from hotel to hotel is a long time without a litter box. I had lined her carrier with a sheepskin pad and taped an absorbent “wee-wee pad” around it, which worked well to keep her dry.
We traveled light: a rollaboard, which we checked, and a daypack each. About 1/3 of the capacity was stuff for Janie: collapsible/disposable litter boxes, litter, food, dishes. We each had a couple of changes of clothes and a laptop. Our needs are simple. Arriving at the hotel in Seattle Janie wasn’t sure if she wanted dinner or a litterbox first!
On our walk yesterday, a little waterfall. So very Oregon in the rainy season.

On our walk yesterday, a little waterfall. So very Oregon in the rainy season.

Sunday, we drove to Portland, which was fun after such a long absence. It was raining, so we felt appropriately welcomed to the Pacific Northwest.
Our son invited us to stay with him while we search for a house and get re-established, so we are doing just that: settling in, overcoming jetlag (coming west sucks), getting pre-approval on a mortgage, shopping for a vehicle, and today we start looking at real estate. We are unpacking some of the 10 boxes we shipped from Italy and starting to reconnect with friends (thank you Voyageurs Femmes for the grand welcoming last night!) and learn our way around on public transportation.
We have only been gone from Roma for a week and the 4 ½ years we spent there is already starting to feel like a dream. Did we really do that?

 

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 Amazon.com. 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?

What I dread about returning to the U.S.

23 Oct
22 October 2016. I listed my beefs with Roma the other day. Turnabout is fair play, so here are the things I am not looking forward to in gli stati uniti.
  • Having to fly to go to Europe. How we have loved jumping on trains! 10 hours or more on a plane is not fun, even in Business Class. When we come back to visit, we will take long trips (we have time!) to make the flights worthwhile. In the meantime, I am overusing my United Mileage Plus Visa to accrue as many points as possible. I wonder if we can charge a house?
  • Incredible choice of squash, and the pumpkins--of various kinds--taste amazing, as does everything.

    Incredible choice of squash, and the pumpkins–of various kinds–taste amazing, as does everything.

    Food additives, wooden produce, and high prices. Food in Italy tastes like it should taste. Red peppers zing, potatoes require no butter for flavor, and the overall need for everything from basil to thyme is minimal because the produce is so darn flavorful. In the U.S. we wax our fruits and veggies to preserve them, and God-knows-what is done to cattle and chickens. I am hoping that between the Farmer’s Market and Nature’s Foods I can find good organic stuff. It will cost significantly more to feed us than it has in Italy. I shudder to think of what wine costs in the U.S! And good olive oil!
  • Car-orientation and having to drive again. Yes, the buses in Rome are problematic, but it is possible — even desirable — to live without a car. Unless we want to live in a 700 square foot condo in downtown Portland, we’re going to have to buy a car. It just is not feasible to depend on buses, light rail, and trains. Ric has not driven in 3 1/2 years, and I have not done so in 18 months. We may have to have our son take us to a big parking lot and give us driving lessons.
  • Few trains. Sniff.

    Now THAT's Italian...Pizzeria Al Forno della Soffita.

    Now THAT’s Italian…Pizzeria Al Forno della Soffita.

  • Pizza. Papa Murphy’s Take-and-Bake will no longer cut it. There is good pizza in Portland: Apizza Scholls and Ken’s Artisan Pizza are renowned, with wood-fired pizzas and high-quality ingredients, but you have to line up about 17:00 to get in. We can barely stand to eat before 20:00 anymore. Nostrana has great pizza, too, but costo molto!
  • Eating dinner at 18:00. In Portland, we used to go out on Saturday night and leave the house at 17:30 so we could get a table without a reservation. Now at 18:00 I can barely think about eating except on occasion a little aperitivo. We like to sit down at a restaurant between 20:00 and 21:00. Even eating at home we seldom tuck in before 20:00. By 20:00 in Portland, most restaurants are thinking about shutting down the kitchen. The afternoon just seems longer and more useful when you aren’t thinking about dinner at 17:00. 
  • Lack of social outdoor life. As much as the sidewalk traffic in Roma can make me crazy, I do love the passeggiata tradition in Italy. It is most fun in the smaller towns. Take a walk, have a coffee or an aperitivo, do some shopping or just lick the windows, as the French say. In Paris, there are the terraces and in London the pubs. In Roma, we have the tiny bars. It is an excellent pre-dinner habit to take a walk, sit with friends and visit. In the U.S., we all pull into our homes using an automatic garage door opener and settle in without chatting up the neighbors. 

    Giant cappuccino in the U.S. The Italian version costs us about €1.20, even sitting down at our neighborhood place. It is JUST RIGHT.

    Giant cappuccino in the U.S. The Italian version costs us about €1.20, even sitting down at our neighborhood place. It is JUST RIGHT.

  • Giant cappuccini. No, I did not mistype. cappuccini is the plural of cappuccino. I think I will have to order the child-size. No one needs 12 ounces of milk to one ounce of espresso. 
Maintaining our Italian lifestyle after our return is going to be about as difficult as playing darts with spaghetti. We shall persevere and let you know how it is going. Four days until we fly!!!

What I will NOT miss when I leave Roma

19 Oct
19 October 2016. When I was newly arrived in Roma I told my Italian teacher (and now good friend, Eleonora) that “È un sogno vivere a Roma!” (It’s a dream to live in Rome!) She replied that she hoped I would not become disappointed. A few months ago I had to tell her “Sono diventa delusa di Roma.” (I’ve become disillusioned with Roma.)
We will miss many things in Italy, However, bubbles are about to burst for some of you…. It is not always a bed of roses living in Roma. In fact, sometimes the thorns draw blood, figuratively. Despite the great food and wine, incredible beauty, and unbeatable coffee culture, the bureaucracy you’ve heard about is real. So is the lack of customer service and caring in some situations. People can be rather self-absorbed. Not in one-on-one situations, but strangers on the street.
This list helps me remember what we do NOT like about living in Roma and makes me a little less sad about leaving.
The offending little cars look more-or-less like this. They are two-passenger, unmuffled, and some sources call them "motorized quadricycles."

The offending little cars look more-or-less like this. They are two-passenger, unmuffled, and some sources call them “motorized quadricycles.”

  • The muffler-less little cars driven by teenagers roaring past at 1:00AM. What the F__ are they thinking to allow these machines that assault the hearing? They have two-stroke engines and sound like chainsaws, only louder, racing down the street. The kids who drive them have got to have hearing problems. But with a teenager, who’d know? 1:00AM and we awake to these ridiculous excuses for cars roaring past our window. These vehicles would be off the street in a heartbeat in most American towns.
  • On a related note, the lack of noise ordinances. A 30-minute fireworks show at 12:00AM on a work night? No problem, apparently, for the exclusive private club near us that has big private events featuring fireworks displays worthy of the 4th of July. On a Wednesday night or whenever.
  • Trash. Cigarette butts in the street and overflowing trash bins. Paris manages to be clean. So does London. I have never seen a trash problem in either city. In Austria where everybody smokes, there are no butts in the street.  Even in other Italian cities it’s not such a problem. In Venezia, there are city employees cleaning the calle by hand with brooms: ALL.THE.TIME. In Venezia, they pick up trash daily outside each door. Firenze is orderly, Milano not bad, and every Tuscan town is neat as a pin. Ortisei is spotless. In our particular neighborhood, the recycling centers are not where you need them. We have to walk two blocks to recycle although the trash bins for regular garbage are close by the apartment. Many of our neighbors cannot be bothered so the recycling gets dumped in with the putrescible trash. And if the bins are full, no one walks 10 steps to dispose of the trash or recycling in another bin. They just dump it on the curb. FYI, in our part of Roma we have escaped some of the worst of the trash problems because it is a bit upper class. In the poorer and middle-class neighborhoods it is worse. Far worse. 
  • Dog poop and pee on the sidewalks. Poor doggies have no greenspace unless they are walked in a park, so what are they to do? Still, it’s annoying, especially if it hasn’t rained for awhile. N.B: Do not step in a puddle on the sidewalk if it has not rained recently.
  • Things don’t change because people think nothing they do will make a difference. There is a fait d’accompli running through Italy. Why try to change because nothing ever does. There is little effective effort at process improvement to fix known problems, e.g., the buses or the recycling. Every new mayor promises to repaint the pedestrian crossings, but no one believes it will happen because it never does. 

    Not unusual to see the sidewalk as a parking lot for motorini, and frequently one or more are in motion.

    Not unusual to see the sidewalk as a parking lot for motorini, and frequently one or more are in motion.

  • Motorini sneaking up behind you or darting around on the sidewalks as though pedestrians are the problem. They drive on the sidewalks to find parking. They drive through red lights. They drive through pedestrian-only areas. Why have a pedestrian area in the city if motorbikes are allowed to drive in it?
  • Walking as a contact sport. Roman streets and sidewalks are like a giant game of “Frogger.” Walkers will run into you on the street, literally, because Romans cannot walk in a straight line and think a group of five people should walk abreast. To a person, our guests have commented on this phenomenon. Old ladies (not me) with two giant shopping bags walk down the center of the sidewalk and take up the whole thing. Narrow sidewalks do not help, but people do not anticipate oncoming foot traffic nor understand their spatial relationship to other pedestrians. All of a sudden they will realize you are there in “their” lane about a nanosecond before impact. Italians — at least Romans — do not naturally “keep right” when walking on a sidewalk. By my reckoning, about 60% try to walk on the left. Even the U.K. where they drive on the left, fewer people walk on the left! A friend raised in both Italy and the U.S. told me that in Italy they are not taught to walk on the right or in a line. People cannot even form an orderly queue. Staircases are a nightmare. Especially when some bozo decides to stand in the middle of it and carry on a conversation on his phone while people try to stream around him. Frogger, I tell you!
  • Buses that don’t show up. This drives me nuts. There is no schedule to Roman buses. Oh, ATAC publishes one, but do the drivers adhere to it? We have a bus app that is supposed to tell us when the next bus will arrive at our stop. But so often they don’t show up or (worse) the predicted one comes by as a dark bus: Fuori Servizio (out of service). We can tell it’s the bus we were waiting for because the bus ID number is the same on the app as the dark bus in the street.  So somewhere between the time it was supposed to leave the top of the line, the time the app said it would arrive at our stop, and the time the phantom bus goes by, it has gone off duty. This never happens in Paris or London. This may sound like whining but without a car and knowing a walk home is 70-90 minutes from the center of Rome — or a €15-20 cab ride — it is annoying. Especially in the heat or rain. This has never happened to us in another European city. You can set your watch by the buses in London, Paris, and anywhere in Switzerland. Closely related in annoyance: 2 or 3 buses on the same route traveling in a pack like a bunch of nuns. They all go by in a procession and then an hour passes with no buses on the line. Arrgghhhhh!
Italy is not perfect. Like any place, there are things that will make you crazy over time. (Yes, there are things in the U.S. that I will remember make me nuts about 3 days after we arrive. Our election process is one of them.) The list above makes me feel less sad about leaving Rome. Italy is still a wonderful place and we will always be happy to come back: as visitors!
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