Our rental contract is up in July, and we’ve been talking houses, cities, square meterage, our girls’ childhood anchor. They’re at that age now where location starts to send its root-tendrils into identity, and we’re all too aware that the next place we choose as home will become capital-H Home to our children—its landscapes and idioms and styles wrapping them in a mantle of familiarity for the rest of their lives. We moved here six years ago for a job rather than for the city itself. That job has since receded into our family archives, and now that our work commute consists of walking from the espresso machine in our kitchen to the desks in our bedroom, the luxury of choice is open to us. Where in the world do we want to go? Where can we afford to go? Where and with whom do we want our girls to spend their formative years? Where do we, as a family, want to unpack our nomadic lifestyle and settle down on purpose?
Several months ago, Daniel and I narrowed down a few possibilities, but we didn’t reach a decision until earlier this week when everything started slipping into place like keys in unseen locks. We found the house—our house, our next installment of Home—and it’s right here in our neighborhood. When we got the confirmation, I let out a huge breath I didn’t realize I’d been holding. In fact, I was completely caught off guard by the depth of my relief. I’ve always been more attracted by fresh starts than by permanence, and if my heart was ever going to latch onto a spot on the map, it wouldn’t be here.
Except that it is. Without consciously intending to, we’ve lived in this city more than half our married life, and it’s gotten under our American skin all the way through to our minds and mannerisms. Our bodies have adapted to the weather, our schedules to the culture. We’ve made dear friends here and become part of communities that we couldn’t leave without significant pain. More than ever before in my life, I understand the term “uprooting,” and I’m unexpectedly, deeply grateful that we won’t be doing it anytime soon.
Now that we’re moving here on purpose, I think it’s high time I introduced you to the city we’ve called home these last six years.
Friends? Meet Perugia:
We’ve always known that one of the biggest challenges of raising our children here in Italy would be religion. Here, Roman Catholicism is so entwined with the Italian culture that it’s practically a genetic trait. Everyone identifies as Catholic—even our irreligious friends who only darken God’s doorstep for Christmas Mass, even our grumpy old neighbor who thinks the Pope is a fraud, even the famously corrupt Berlusconi. But we don’t.
I suppose we’d consider ourselves non-denominational Protestants, which comes across as inoffensive (if annoyingly non-committal) in English. However, the term in Italian is evangelici, and the Vatican has repeatedly warned against the divisive strategies of Evangelical “sects.” With that one word, we’re painted as part of a subversive and politically sponsored movement deployed to steal ground from Catholicism, so we’ve learned to anticipate the awkward moments when new friends try to decide whether we’re cultish insurrectionists or just weird Americans.
Fortunately, Italians are as warm and welcoming as their food, and my heart swells a few sizes in appreciation for this culture every time someone initiates another respectful, curiosity-driven conversation about our differing beliefs. Those conversations are treasures for me, both because respect is such a commodity in these days of online mud-slinging and because I really do want to know more about what my friends believe, what fuels their spiritual journeys, what makes their souls tick. I’ve written before about laying down my own prejudices against Catholics, and I’m honored that they do the same for me. Friendship through diversity—it’s a glimpse of heaven on earth.
But I’ve also written before about my discomfort with religion being taught in the Italian public schools, and the older our girls get, the harder it is for me to navigate this cultural divide with confidence and grace. By law, we have the right to opt out of religion hour, and we do… though with some misgivings (especially because Natalie is sent to sit at the back of another class during that hour, which counts as illegal discrimination). One of the other mamas told me that the class teaches completely objective universal truths, and the slight sharpness underpinning her voice made me think that maybe we are being ridiculous, that maybe we’re sadly overprotective parents who are raising our girls to mistrust authority and fear differences of opinion. The religion teacher for Natalie’s class has been trying to convince us as well, assuring Natalie that the only thing they’re teaching this year is friendship.
Natalie spoke very carefully when she told me about this, using the same humble and slightly tremulous tone that poor little Willy Wonka used when he suggested to his tyranical dentist father that maybe he wasn’t allergic to chocolate? maybe he could try a piece?
Maybe it would be okay to stay in the class because it’s about friendship? And we believe in friendship? And I don’t even have to listen? I could just be in the room?
Daniel and I talked it over for a long time last night, knowing all too well that our daughters’ hearts will be affected in one way or another by our decision. We didn’t take it lightly. Though we both agreed that there is no way the religion class is objective (I mean, really), I thought that perhaps she could be. Natalie is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at eight years old, she might already have what it takes to filter various religious teachings through the lens of objectivity. Besides, we don’t want to force the girls into the molds of our belief system; we talk to them about what we believe of course, but we want their faiths to be personal and organic and informed. Maybe the class could be a good thing.
However, there is still the issue that religion is being taught as an academic subject. I agreed with Daniel that second grade is too early to expect a child to differentiate between the universal truths of multiplication and spelling and the controversial gray areas of spirituality when they’re all being taught in the same format, graded in the same red pen. We would be putting our sweet eight-year-old in the position of either doubting her teachers or doubting her parents. I don’t want her to have to do either. I don’t want religion to be an issue at school. I don’t want to make my children question the whole academic construct, nor do I want to force them to take a stand for my beliefs.
Maybe we were just blowing everything out of proportion. Maybe if we stopped worrying and just let the girls attend religion class like all the other kids, everything would turn out fine. Maybe…
But then Daniel brought up the one comparison I hadn’t considered—Sunday School at a fundamentalist Christian church. Would I let my children attend an hour a week of patriarchal teachings and expect that they could maintain perfect objectivity? Would I trust that doctrines of hell and atonement and salvation that I categorically disagree with would simply float past the viewing windows of my daughters’ minds and then dissipate? Would I really, honestly believe that my little open-eared girls could be taught dogma without any of it taking root?
No. Nonononononono. I wouldn’t even take the chance. And even though my experience with fundamentalist Christianity makes me think it is so much more potentially damaging than any other religion, and even though I respect my Catholic friends and don’t feel I’m in any position to call their beliefs harmful, I can’t simply decide that my girls will be vulnerable in one religious classroom but not in another. I can’t pretend that conflicting descriptions of God will affect them in one setting but not in another. Either my eight-year-old is already strong enough to hear all religious perspectives with curious detachment, or we should still be guarding her spiritual merge lane as best we can.
The Sunday School example settled the question for me. In future years, we probably will let the girls decide whether or not to attend religion class, but second grade is too soon for us. We had a family conversation about it over breakfast this morning, Natalie obviously disappointed and me feeling like Sauron himself but our hearts on the same page. Daniel and I explained to the girls that our family believes some things differently than their classmates’ families do and that that’s okay—we’re all trying to follow God and do good and love each other well—but that we’d prefer them not to learn religion at school for now. I’m not sure the reasoning made sense to them, but both girls accepted the decision; we spent the rest of breakfast talking about saints and songs and the different things people believe, holding tight as a family to the value of respect—both for others’ beliefs and for the sacred spaces of our own hearts.
We’ve had an odd schedule lately. Italy celebrated a national holiday on Thursday last week and another one two days ago, and it seems like weekends keep popping their heads into our lives and then backing out again, mumbling apologies. We’ve spent more time with friends over the last week than we have in months, and it’s felt like coming back to ourselves even as work piled up around our ears, even as the haphazard routines in our life gave up altogether and ditched us to go out for commiserative drinks.
This is an odd season of life, actually. We’re never quite sure if we’re on the verge of change or if we’re putting down roots into our version of normal. Those things that make us feel most alive—traveling, spending quality time with friends, writing (for me), playing music (for him)—have taken a back seat to the sheer madness of trying to establish ourselves as self-employed. We know the work we’re doing is valuable, but we don’t know when we should stop, what shape the big picture is taking, whether we’re in a sprint or a marathon.
One day, I’m sure I’ll look back on these in-between years and see every pattern and nuance through the clear vision of hindsight. I may even develop nostalgia for this time when our lives revolve around possibility (nostalgia-speak for “How the hell are we going to make it??”). For now, though, I’m trying to focus on one bite-sized day at a time and on the snippets of loveliness that carry me through the crazy:
* The drone of lawnmowers all across the city on Sunday afternoons. Even though I know that the tiny wild daisies that I love are being cut along with the wild allergy grass that I don’t love, lawnmowers sing the surest tribute to sunshine I can imagine.
* The quaint ruckus of Umbrian architecture, pink limestone houses and terraces and arches piled up on top of each other like a Medieval slumber party. We’ve lived here almost six years, and I still can’t get over the layers of our landscape: the base of silver-dusted olive trees posed like elderly modern dance troupes, the jumble of sun-warmed stone climbing out, and the Mediterranean sky pooled above. I still can’t stop pulling out my camera, a tourist in my own home.
* Coffee, in the social sense. I’m always amazed at the kind of long, easy conversation that can be carried by something as small as an espresso. Don’t try to tell me there’s no magic in that dark liquid.
* Re-falling-in-love songs:
* Handwritten letters addressed to me.
* Baby apricots, cherries, and figs in the backyard we share with our landlord’s family. (We live on the top floor of a “family condo,” which is a vastly more common living arrangement than standalone homes are here. I adore how this setup allows me to have fruit trees without my having to do any work whatsoever to maintain them.) Seedlings, snapdragons, and an explosion of strawberry buds in our balcony garden. Flowers on the kitchen table again. Little growing things, life all around.
* Sleeping on freshly washed sheets that have spent the afternoon cavorting outside with the breeze. I remember the luminous Mollie Greene commenting once on Instagram that washing your sheets “makes all the difference in everything,” and I’m inclined to agree.
* Tolkien with the girls before bed. After enduring series like The Faraway Tree, which the girls enjoyed but which made me want to stick forks into my own eyeballs, I’m thrilled to be reading good literature as a family. Also, I’d forgotten how funny The Hobbit is. (And what a bad-ass that Gandalf is!)
* Chocolate-covered grins.
Tell me about the snippets of loveliness carrying you right now. Ready, set, go!
I just got back from an overnight getaway in Rome, and this entry may be less coherent than usual due to the excruciatingly early hour I got up to chauffeur my business-tripping husband to the airport and our less-than-responsible bedtime last night. I’m running on three hours of sleep and approximately six espressos right now, so you may want to read this post with one eye closed and the other twitching violently. At least consider yourself fairly warned.
Even after five years in Italy, I still get a speechless shiver each time I catch myself saying things like “I just got back from Rome.” It sounds like someone else’s exotic life, as plausible as a weekly brunch date with James Bond. It’s come to my attention that some of you feel a little disconnected as well when I write about our travels, so I wanted to take the opportunity today to share a more fleshed-out perspective of what our life here entails.
First, keep in mind that daily life is daily life, no matter where you call home. Even the Pope, nested above the bewildering opulence of St. Peter’s, puts on his slippers and shuffles into the routine of his day like the rest of us. The human mind simply can’t sustain a state of wonder long-term, though I feel like I’m betraying a collective fairytale in admitting that. After all, I live in Italy, a land flowing with family-recipe wine and artistic genius. If the mundane ever stepped back in deference for a place, it would be here. However, our socks still need washing, our landlord still needs cajoling, and our drivers licenses still need renewing…
…which brings me to Point #2: BUREAUCRACY. This one deserves capital letters both because it is a capital pain and because it is such a huge part of the expat experience. Every year or so, our life is fed into a gigantic bureaucratic machine where it is immediately pulled in seven different directions, investigated, ignored, wrung through committee meetings, entered into multiple related yet un-networked computer systems, lost, found, lost again, put up for adoption, taxed, misspelled, misquoted, mistaken, misinformed, and finally returned to us with a bill for the equivalent of two months’ wages. There is no principality or power that can force the Italian government to work more efficiently, and we are still mastering the spiritual discipline of Not Pulling Our Hair Out. Living here [legally, that is] can be mind-shreddingly hard.
The question we are most often asked by Italians is “WHY?” As in, “Why are you here? Why are you putting yourselves through the bureaucratic migraine machine? Why in the world would you leave your easy life in the States?” It’s a valid question, and I’m glad we’re reminded so frequently to examine our motives. It can be all too easy to slip into the groove of daily routines (when we’re not trying to reclaim our life from the system, of course) and forget that we aren’t here for the pasta or the travel opportunities or the bilingual daughters.
We’re here because these are our people. This culture is where our heart is, where our sense of home is rooted. We’ve been accused by homesick expats of loving everything about Italy, and I can assure you that’s not the case; however, the community we’ve found here is worth every frustration, inconvenience, and empty hair follicle. It’s the why.
The speechless shiver of getting to spend a night in Rome is just an auxiliary wow.
Last weekend, the fog drew around our house like a heavy silver curtain. Sophie was sick and Natalie’s school was on strike*, so we had the deep-settling thrill of burrowing into our own little world for a day or two. The girls had been reverberating for weeks with pent-up holiday cheer, and even my no-carols-before-Thanksgiving resolve had crumbled in the home stretch, so it was clear to everyone how our hibernation weekend should be spent.
* Clarification point #1: Kids here typically go to school six mornings a week and get out at lunchtime; it’s inconvenient and awesome all at once. Clarification point #2: Schools go on strike in our district about twice a month, each one formally announced ahead of time. Again, inconvenient + awesome.
We bought this tree seven years ago for Natalie’s first Christmas. At the time, the three of us were living on a single graduate school stipend, and fresh-cut pines were up there with cable TV and new shoes on the Hierarchy of Unnecessary Expenses. However, the Martha Stewart Holiday Collection went on sale at our local K-Mart, and our baby’s squeals of joy right there on Aisle 5 decided for us. It was nothing fancy; we knew our tree would never evoke nostalgia for either Appalachia or Anthropologie, but the point was that it was ours.
And is it ever ours. Though our collection of ornaments has grown steadily over the years, only two of them—a set of crystal love birds from Daniel’s grandparents—actually match. Ours is a tree of keepsakes and fingerprints, cross-stitching and salt dough. We have a wooden bell that Daniel colored with markers when he was in preschool and I blotched with melted candy canes a few years back. We hang it anyway. There are the two cartoonish and slightly disproportionate Loch Ness monsters I coaxed out of modeling clay for the girls to remember our summer in Scotland. Natalie hangs hers next to a pony she once made out of pegboard beads and strung up via a hair ribbon with an artist’s pride. Meanwhile, Sophie chooses a single branch for a series of paper hearts displaying a four-year-old’s scissor skills and enthusiastic joy.
These now-dusty limbs sport chocolate lips and jingle bells, felt daubed with formerly-hot glue, a couple of miniature storybooks shellacked into submission, and a rocking horse that may or may not have been through a war… and each year that goes by gives me greater satisfaction in declaring that what our tree lacks in fashion sense, it more than makes up for in memories.
Admittedly, I still pause every time I wander into the Christmas section of the party store. I can’t help scanning the shelves of baubles and lights and blown-glass snack foods—seriously, why are those a thing? and why do I want them so badly?—and imagining our living room transformed into a magazine spread. It’s easy, far too easy, to envision how a cartful of decorations would change our lives. Don’t we want our holiday pictures to reflect perfection? Wouldn’t our daughters’ experience be improved with icicle lights or topiaries or at least an identifiable color scheme?
Last weekend, as the fog wrapped us tightly into the warmth and music of our living room, I remembered as I do every year why I always leave the Christmas aisle with an empty cart. This tree of ours, with its missing PVC needles and mismatched lights and homemade ornament parade, holds a magic all of its own—a magic all of our own. It glows with our family stories and preserves evidence of our personalities, our creativity, our thumbprints. The girls reminisced about each ornament as they chose the imperfectly perfect spot to hang it, and when we were done, it was like someone had hung a sun in the room; all we wanted to do was bask.
Do you ever struggle with holiday-decoration-envy?
The morning sun scattering particles of color off of apples, handbags, and Vespas, the sky-drunk windows above, the passersby pausing to browse.
Sudden art around every corner, hanging on the pause between footsteps; beauty so extravagant it leaves its imprint like sun-stars on your mind.
Every window in the house wide open to the diamond-cut morning air.
Pumpkin spice latte with cinnamon steam.
Tendrils of wood smoke and the rustle of olive nets, hallmarks of November in Umbria.
The new Mumford & Sons—soul-shiveringly good.
Daisies, orange and fuchsia.
What is your “right now?”
Friends? Meet my blog’s namesake:
Espresso is darker than you might think underneath that caramel cloud, bold, bitter-rich, and supremely confident. If you add as much sugar as I do, it goes down like a burnt-umber glaze, and you could feel its intensity on your tongue for days if you were willing to forego toothpaste. Sipping it roasts your tongue and sends after-shocks down your throat, a bolt of liquid electricity… and then your mind begins to unfurl.
I learned this over Sunday dinners with friends our first year here in Italy. After the vermouth-soaked olives and the melting mountains of pasta and the veal and the salad and the pears and the tiramisu, after the children bounded away from the table and the chatter slowed to a contented lull, after the dishes were cleared and there was nothing left to do but relax, the tiny porcelain cups would come out. The espresso machine would croon its guttural love notes, the sugar bowl would give up its bouquet of silver teaspoons, and we would sip the last few steps to total tranquility.
Five years later, I can’t tell you whether or not I like the taste of espresso… but it’s not the taste that hangs my afternoons on this small pleasure. It’s the liturgy of contentment. It’s the infusion of courage and caffeine, the slow rhythm reset, and finally, the clarity.
How do you take your coffee? And what significance does it hold for you?
Today marks one week back at school for the girls. Summer lasts long in Italy, and I can no longer contemplate freshly sharpened pencils in the same month when all our neighbors are headed to their beach homes, or apples for the teacher when we’re still in the syrupy peach haze of August. No, the backpacks come out of storage with the skinny jeans here, and this, my fifth back-to-school as an expat mother, is the first time I haven’t been afraid of it.
You have to understand that few personalities are less suited to the learningcoastercrazyspiral of expat life than mine. Two words: shy perfectionist. I’m easily intimidated by the challenge of opening my mouth in my own language, much less a foreign one, and I desperately want to do every last little particle of life right. Moving to a new culture where I am 100% guaranteed to make mistakes every time I a) step out my door, b) open my mouth, and c-z) try to pass myself off as a confident, capable adult who knows what the hell she’s doing in line at the post office has been an ongoing exercise in recovering from mortal embarrassment and pinning my worth on something other than social finesse. (Baked goods, perhaps?)
The girls’ back-to-school transition is particularly prone to trial and error because parents are expected to know through a combination of telepathy and strategic neighborhood networking who to register with, where to order books, how to stock up on supplies, which uniform is required, and what day and time of day school starts. I am inordinately grateful each year when we manage to show up before the bell and with a majority of the right supplies. This year, however, my gratefulness was due less to beating the telepathy game and more to having a great group of friends we can hit up for details. I didn’t have to worry that my child would end up the only second-grader without 5-millimeter graph paper or that my other child would be kicked out of kindergarten for lack of a sun hat. I really didn’t worry at all, which was a welcome departure from tradition.
This lack of anxiety was significant for another reason too, another kind of cultural divide overcome. See, I was raised in a hyper-fundamentalist Christian lifestyle based almost entirely on fear. First and foremost, we were afraid of God; he was demanding, judgmental, and vindictive, and he dangled the threat of hell above our heads like a sword hanging on the gossamer strand of his patience. We were so afraid of incurring his wrath that we accepted every passing religious do and don’t at face value and left critical thinking to those damned (literally) liberals.
We were almost equally afraid of “The World,” the term we used to describe any society or person who did not share our beliefs. The World was the government who collected taxes and redistributed them as welfare and failed to enforce our country’s founding values. The World was secular media, with its television programs and feature films and news bulletins all designed to glorify sin. Most of all, The World was public school, Satan’s greatest ploy for corrupting young hearts and minds. The only times I set foot in a public school as a child was when my parents went there to vote, and despite the empty classrooms and quiet halls, I was terrified that the godlessness of the place would seep into my pores like an airborne disease.
I’m a parent of school-aged daughters myself now, and I understand more than ever what my parents feared about sending me off to school. When I pass my girls into the waiting arms of their teachers, I relinquish a very large measure of control. I no longer act as filter and gatekeeper to my children’s minds, and yes, it is incredibly scary to imagine what ideas and mannerisms they could absorb away from home. My kneejerk reaction would be to protect, protect, protect, to turn our home into a bunker of parental-approved thinking and only let in whatever wafts of the outside world won’t disturb our family ecosystem.
I know from deeply personal experience, however, that mind control is a losing game for everyone involved. Discernment can’t grow in an environment where only one side of an issue is ever presented. Conflict resolution can’t be learned where conflict is never allowed. Grace can’t thrive in a relational or ideological vacuum, nor can compassion, courage, or humility. We were designed to live in a multifaceted world full of wonderfully unique people who hold diverse opinions, and I want my children to experience the horizon-expanding beauty of this design instead of hiding from it in fear.
Beyond the fact that I would be a terrible homeschool teacher (seriously, the worst), I don’t actually want to be the only adult my girls look up to or learn from. I don’t agree with everything that their teachers and Sunday School leaders and even relatives tell them, but those differences in opinion have a way of sparking great conversations with the girls, conversations we wouldn’t get to have if they were getting a single-minded stream of information from me. Besides, facts aren’t everything. The girls also get love from the “outsiders” in our lives, and part of the joy of their return to school this year was in their reunion with much-beloved teachers and classmates.
How could I be afraid of that, I ask?
Even my coffee cup is dripping sweat. It’s a wool-heavy 97° in the shade, and the entire tray of ice cubes I plinked into my espresso have melted away. I see metaphor in this, but my four-year-old has started teetering out of her bedroom each day with a cheery “Good morning, I’m MELTING, can you put extra ice in my coffee?” so perhaps it’s time I found a new metaphor.
This coffee cup was a gift earlier this year from a soul sister who instinctively knows my brainwaves and heartbeats, and the message she painted on it could be my motto for the year if I could come to accept the poetry of it beneath the film of sweat. See, this prompt to muse, awake, and do brave things has taken on a very practical significance over the last couple of months. As the Emerson quote goes, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory,” but there is no such thing as a mere ounce of action when two work-from-home parents start pulling together a side business from scratch.
Rather, there is 1 a.m. and then 2 a.m. and then 3 a.m. for the fourteenth night in a row. There are heads pressed against desks, and it could be frustration or it could be prayer or it might just be good old-fashioned exhaustion. There is a mind-numbing amount of research, more study than I ever put into university midterms (and that was pre-motherhood!). There are a dozen moments in any given day when I catch myself reading over legal fine-print or double-checking prices or wading through PHP with a child hanging off each arm and think Who am I kidding?
Bootstrapping is like training for a marathon while you’re running it. It’s ridiculous and exhilarating and as emotional stabilizing as Tourette’s. It’s an enthusiastic brainstorm one moment followed by an overwhelmed slump the next, and hope has to take over in the absence of any guarantees. I know that some of you have gone through this too, so correct me if I’m wrong, but starting up a side business doesn’t feel brave so much as it feels… well, sweaty. We’re doing it though—ridiculous, spastic hope and all—and despite the exhaustion and constant perspective-swings, it’s been kind of fun. Especially this:
(Did you check out the site? We built it, Daniel and I, mostly during late-late nights after our usual work was done and the girls in bed. By the grace of God, it does not appear to include any bleary references to will.i.am interviews or those hallucinatory kids’ shows that air after midnight.)
While we’re rooting on these gorgeous local olive wood sets to provide a new stream of income, I’m most excited to be sharing regular posts about the Italian style of home entertaining that has so influenced the structure of our days. (I rewrote that last sentence several times so it wouldn’t sound like our lives revolve around happy hour, which it doesn’t, except to the extent that we’re building a business around it and taste-testing twenty cocktails in one day, and I should probably stop explaining now.) Part of what we love so much about life here is the priority Italians place on sitting around a table together, investing in relationships and enjoying foods and drinks that are brilliant works of art in themselves, and both Daniel and I are looking forward to passing along that tradition through Aperitì.
We slipped out for a two-day getaway at our favorite campground last week, and as I stood with a giddily nervous Sophie-girl at the edge of the pond, I reminded her what I believe about bravery—that it’s doing something even though it scares you. This child, who has never once agreed to enter a body of water deeper than her bikini bottom, dipped her toe in the pond, recoiled several feet, sat down, inched forward, adjusted her collection of floaties, peeked in the water, shut her eyes, opened them, shut them again, and finally, breathlessly, plunged in. I suppose that’s not too different from my own mental process this summer, and even though it might sound overly dramatic to call opening a small online store and accompanying blog brave, this might be just the new metaphor I need.