Tag Archives: USA

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 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!!!

Missing the U.S.A.

19 Jun
19 June 2016. There must be something in the air causing ex-pat Americans in Italy to miss America.  I am pretty certain it isn’t Trump, Clinton or Sanders conjuring up the emotional response to missing the homeland, but a rash of articles, blogs, and posts to Facebook broke out in the past couple of weeks.
We’ve now been in Rome four years (as of May 18, 2016) and retired for one (as of May 19). We have found the experience as true ex-pats, outside the protective bubble of the embassy, to put us more in touch with what it is really like to live here. And yet we do not have to face many of the challenges working Italians that are raising families face. We have no pesky jobs.
Still, I have to say from time-to-time I get a little maudlin about not being in the United States. Rome is so beautiful and a delight to walk through when people aren’t knocking you off the sidewalk, but there are a few things from the U.S. that I miss so very much.
Clothes dryers
Drying rack on our terrace. It faces south, so when the weather is good the drying is fast. That's Libby in the foreground.

Drying rack on our terrace. It faces south, so when the weather is good the drying is fast. That’s Libby in the foreground.

You can try to romanticize the fresh-air drying, clothes warmed by the sun, blah, blah, blah. The truth is, all we have is a terrace with a rack from IKEA. The clothes come out stiff. I have never ironed so much in my life. There is nothing fresh about the motorino-scented air of Roma and if I leave them out too long, they gather pollen and dust. 
In winter, we have to hang clothes on a smaller rack in our second bedroom because they won’t dry in the cold and not enough sun hits the terrace. Drying bed sheets can take 24 hours. Give me a good old tumble dryer! We had one in our embassy apartment but running one is cost-prohibitive for the average person. Plus, there’s not room for one in our apartment.  
Ethnic food
Yes, we love Italian food. We can (and do) eat it day and night, but we miss the diversity of Peruvian, Mexican, Lebanese, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Indian available in most great cities. Certainly some are available in Roma. We’ve tried Thai in Roma and just was not comparable to anything we get in the U.S., although there is an excellent Lebanese place. On our recent trip through Switzerland, we managed to find excellent Mexican, Vietnamese, and Indian food. Oh, yeah, we had Italian, too. 
It is also challenging to find certain ingredients. I have been seeking fresh cilantro for 4 years. No dice. 
Understanding what is going on around me most of the time
How wondrous it would be to not only understand the words but also most of the pop culture references. Italian journalistic style takes some getting used to. Reading the paper is a chore for me, and I can understand the TV news only if I sit and watch it, completely focused, so I don’t. 
Family and friends and easy visits
Seeing family means an awfully big trip for one of us. We have American friends in Roma, but it is a transient community. In fact, our closest friends of the last two years are leaving this summer. 
Pedestrian-friendly sidewalks
Walking down the sidewalk is a full-body-contact sport in Roma. In the U.S. sidewalks are wide and level.  In the U.S. foot traffic moves more smoothly because there are norms. People in most cities, whether Paris or Portland, stay right or move over well in advance of any possible impact. In Roma, five people walking together expect to walk abreast of one another regardless of oncoming traffic. They gather in large groups in the middle of the sidewalk blocking passage while carrying on a conversation. People barge out of shop doors without glancing left or right. Add the bancarelli (sidewalk vendors) and cars parked on the sidewalks, and you get the picture: There’s little space left for pedestrians. 


A classic example of Roman parking: across the sidewalk, on a pedestrian crossing, in a school zone. I'm sure s/he was only going to be a couple of minutes...

A classic example of Roman parking: across the sidewalk, on a pedestrian crossing, in a school zone. I’m sure s/he was only going to be a couple of minutes…

This is our street. We live in the orangey-pink building on the left. Note the tow-away zone yet cars parked half-on-half-off the sidewalk. There is a sticker on the sign right below the arrow that says "Capito?" Ha! Never, ever do they enforce the parking law here.

This is our street. We live in the orangey-pink building on the left. Note the tow-away zone yet cars parked half-on-half-off the sidewalk. There is a sticker on the sign right below the arrow that says “Capito?” Ha! Never, ever do they enforce the parking law here.


Things working and making sense
  • Buses have no schedule because the traffic is heavy and double-parking is so rampant that the bus cannot keep to a schedule. AND the bus drivers are willy-nilly about departures from the top-of-the-route, so often 2 or 3 buses on the same line are within 5 or 10 minutes of one another and then there will be no bus for 45 minutes. WTF? Funny how in Paris you can set your watch to the bus. In Paris, the parking laws are enforced. How novel.  
  • Websites with an “events” page last updated in 2013
  • Stores that close for the afternoon just about when you have time to actually go shopping, and Post Office hours that are 8:35 to 13:05.
  • Parking in the pedestrian crossings, or on sidewalks, or anywhere the driver damn well feels like it. Arrrggghhhhh!
  • Needing to pay the cable company when we disconnect service. Yup, it costs €200 to disconnect and 60 days notice to do so. We might just test this program by not following the rules….
We recently took a cab home from Stazione Termini and the driver was incredulous that we choose to live in Roma. “Why?” he asked. “America is great. Everything works! Italy is a third-world country!” Even Italians know things don’t work here as well as in the U.S.
Talbots, Zappos, & Nordstrom
I miss my favorite stores and online shopping. We have (not good for clothes), and Lands End U.K. (which is good for clothes). I hate going from one tiny store to another looking for something. 
Going out to breakfast now-and-then
Real American smoked bacon is missing from my life. Along with fluffy omelets and breakfast potatoes. I don’t need them often, but more often than twice in four years would be great. 
Reading the Sunday paper (You still have them, right?)
Still we are privileged to live here. In May, we celebrated four years in Rome. Il tempo vola! My grievances are so-called First World Problems. The food in Italy is terrific, the coffee unbeatable, and the wine both excellent and inexpensive. After a recent 7-night stay in Switzerland where we practically had to sell our blood to afford wine, Italy looks mighty affordable. Our rent is less than we’d pay in Portland and we have trains
We do miss you, though, America! Baci to our friends and family. 


Rocky Mountain high

23 Aug
We are in the Wild West now my friends. We find ourselves in beautiful Durango, Colorado for the final stage of our U.S. Megatrip. We wrapped up our Seattle visit to the tune of a rare thunderstorm, returned to Portland for some final errands and socializing, and moved on to the great state of Colorado. (Hover over or click on each picture for the caption.)
I feel terrible that in my last post I neglected to mention Susan & Larry and Gayle & Dennis with whom we also enjoyed terrific meals during the first Portland segment. We ate our way through the city.
Upon our return to Portland for the second visit, we picked up awesome new eyeglasses – my first non-red glasses in about 30 years – and enjoyed a few more dinners with good friends. We’ve had a Lebanese mezza, Northwest salmon barbecue, sushi, more brew pub lunches, and breakfast at a very hip Portland spot, Tasty and Alder. Thanks to John & Janet, Diana and the fabulous Femmes, Jim & Wanda, and J.C. & Maarja! Notice we have not had Italian food at all (except the pizzas previously reviewed at Our Weekly Pizza).
Durango is high-altitude living. My brother’s house in the valley sits at 7500 feet/2286 meters above sea level. That takes some getting used to. That is higher than most of the hiking we do on the ridges and high meadows in the Dolomites.
We needed to spend a couple of days getting used to the elevation in this high valley with little energetic exercise, so we took a ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad Thirty-one years ago Ric and I had our first vacation together and it was to Durango to ride the D&SNGRR. I am delighted to say the railroad has endured as fantastically as our relationship. The ride is a trip through time with authentic coaches, a coal-fired steam engine from the 1880s, and a narrator in character that relates stories of the era. It is an exceptionally beautiful ride through the mountains.  I am pleased to say the Animas River is more-or-less of normal color after the toxic spill a few weeks ago, and is expected to recover.
Once acclimated to the altitude, my brother and sister-in-law took us on a high-elevation hike to Engineer Mountain. For the record, we hiked to “Bus Stop” which is known in our family as “The Lunch Log.” Friends, this hike started at 10,660ft/3249m, and we climbed to 11,617ft/3541m. The round trip was about 5 miles, so not a bad climb, except for the fact that these flatlanders were hiking to an elevation higher than the peak of Mount Hood in Oregon (11,250ft/3429m). We feel pretty pleased with ourselves that we did it without fainting or hyperventilating.
Today we took a Path to Breakfast, enjoying a 4-mile jaunt through the valley and down into the city of Durango where we indulged in an American-style breakfast. We were fortunate to have the company of Australian Shepherds, Quip and Millie, as well as humans Jane and Susan. We have not hiked with dogs in years and it added a lot of fun to the hike. Jane spotted bear tracks on the trail – a sizable bear with a paw as big as a small human foot – a reminder that this land is still wild. Even more fortunate, we were given a ride home from Durango.
Milly and Quip on the path to breakfast, Durango.

Milly and Quip on the path to breakfast, Durango.

We have a few more days stateside. You’ll hear from me again, no doubt, as I get my head around the inevitable compare-and-contrast Italy and the U.S.
Sharon and Catherine photo bomb me.

Sharon and Catherine photo bomb me.

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