Tuesday, February 26, 2008

New Digs

My life has become consumed with trying to get my new landlord to come and finish projects. His attention span lasts a cumulative duration of no more than ten minutes. When will the shower cube actually become a cube enclosed by walls? Will the teak landing at the top of the stairs ever gain a protective coating to match the steps? And, how long will it take for the promised television to arrive to replace the broken one he gave us? Our inquiring minds want to know! Bryan calls him frequently...and it's a good sign that he still answers the calls. He'll come by, take a look, mumble something that always ends in "domani" and goes away again. Domani doesn't seem to mean "tomorrow" like the dictionary translates it. He also seems to never do any of the actual work himself...strange, we think, for someone who calls himself a building contractor. We really miss our sweet, very attentive, work-horse minded previous landlord. Too bad he didn't own a brighter apartment for us to rent.

On the upside, though, the new guy did install high-speed internet, so we are very happy with him on that account. I love being able to connect without worrying what time of day it is and if the cell signal will be able to handle the traffic. Once I'm connected I no longer have to go brew a cup of coffee while waiting for pages to load. Most sites appear as if by magic on my screen, though a few blogs I'd like to read still present problems by locking up my computer completely. I don't know what they've put on there as I can never actually get to their sites, so I've scrapped them from my bookmarked lineup. Nothing frustrates me more than a locked-up computer.

We still have things in boxes and bags and haven't yet found a furniture arrangement that "feels" right. Moving to new digs is a major undertaking. We still need to buy a few things to supplement the furnishings provided. For some reason the owner didn't want undersink cabinetry or medicine-cabinet-type cupboards; just where am I supposed to put those items that have been tucked away in those crevices for more than a year? Boh. Still working on that thought.

On another note, my parents will be arriving in the beginning of March for a visit, which we're very much looking forward to. There is a cute B&B just around the corner so they don't have to unfurl the sofa-bed each night ("we're too old for that," my mom admits).

We enjoy having sunlight in the house all day long, something we lacked in our old place, and there are shops, restaurants and a great pastry shop conveniently located nearby (though Bryan still walks ten minutes to the old 'hood to hang out with his barista pal there). I wake up to bird songs in the park behind us, rather than the screeching signora, which makes for a much more pleasant morning. Now if I could just get an *actual* shower in the morning, I'd be a very happy camper.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Getting Personal

At the beginning of the year I took the bureaucratic leap into the Italian health care system. While it was not excruciatingly complicated, it was quite time-consuming. First, I had to go up the hill to the main health office to wait in line in order to declare my intent, show the proper residenza paperwork and obtain the enrollment form. Then I had to go to a specified bank in town in order to pay the required fee, as I am not a dependent worker who has an employer paying the subscription for me. Once I had the receipt, I took that back up the hill to once again wait in a long line, give my personal data and become enrolled. The clerk informed me that my tessera (enrollment card) would arrive in the mail in about two months.

When I returned from my trip to the US I found a letter from the health system and thought my card had arrived surprisingly quickly. Instead, it was a letter informing me that, as a new member, I was entitled to a free PAP test. It listed an office address, date and time. I called the number provided to confirm the appointment, figuring that as it had been more than 20 months since my last exam, I ought to have it done, though I admit I was little hesitant about introducing myself to nationalized healthcare in such an intimate way.

Male readers may want to stop here. The rest deals with what is delicately labeled as “female issues”.

As all you feminine readers well know, a pap test is not usually a major ordeal, but the whole set-up is a bit uncomfortable in general. Cold, sterile room; paper gowns; metal tables; and, of course, stirrups. Ah, it’s fun to be female, isn’t it? My gynecologist in New Mexico was very nice but always behind schedule. After checking in at the reception desk, I’d be freezing in the scanty, back-closure gown for nearly an hour awaiting her entrance to perform the deed. Outdated magazines can only go so far to keep you occupied in such a state, then sighing and clock-watching sets in. Just when I was about to get dressed and stalk out, she would enter, all smiles and apologies, and get down to business.

The exam was just a tad different here. I arrived at the appointed time slot at the address provided. The building contained many closed doors, presumably offices or exam rooms, but I had no way of knowing as they were all unmarked. No reception desk for checking in, no one around to ask. I stood about a minute trying to figure out where I needed to go, then latched on to a nurse as she came out of an office, before she could flee for lunch. I told her I was here for the pap screening but didn’t know which office I needed. She told me to simply take a seat and wait. “Uh, but how will they know I’m here? Don’t I need to check in somewhere?” I asked ignorantly. No, no. They’ll come for you, she responded. Va bene. Pretty soon, a few other women trickled in and just sat down, each clutching the same letter that I had received. We all smiled at each other weakly, but no one attempted to converse.

About five minutes later a woman yelled out of an office down the hall, “AVANTI!” Basically meaning, whoever is first, come on down. I entered the office and sat in front of her desk while she took my letter and started to input the information. No matter how hard she tried, the spelling of my last name, Schneider, completely defeated her. Not for the first time did I rue the day I changed my name upon marriage. Italians cannot grasp all those consonants in a row. Then she had a hard time finding my inscription in the computer system. Meanwhile, a nurse had entered who seemed very kind, and helped her find it. I thought she’d be the one conducting the actual exam, but she departed with a friendly “arrivederci”.

Once the clerk finished the paperwork and I had signed it all, she instructed me to strip down in the nether regions. “Uh…where?” I asked, looking around the office. “Over there,” she bobbed her head in the general direction of the filing cabinet. I was a little confused but got up and peeked around to find an exam table set up, within the office space, with only a shabby filing cabinet shielding it from view. I suddenly longed for the cold, sterile exam rooms I used to complain about, but obligingly did as I was instructed and hopped up on the table. No gown, no covering, just…uh, out there. Then, the not-so-friendly clerk abandoned her computer terminal, walked over and slapped on a pair of latex glove and set about performing the exam, the details of which I won’t go into but which you all know well enough (except to say that the usually-metal speculum was plastic). She mumbled something that I didn’t understand and asked her to repeat it, which she did but just as hastily and garbled as the first time, so I have no idea what she was communicating. I didn’t much care at that point, and quickly got dressed and left, the clerk/nurse instructing me to tell the next lady-in-waiting to come in.

All told, the process took only fifteen minutes, a far cry from the hour wait I had in my plant-festooned and brightly-lit gynecologist office at home. And I guess the procedure and outcome are the same, only free. My first welcome to the Italian health care system was a relatively painless, albeit very personal, one.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Becoming Jane

We returned yesterday from England. Did you miss me? I know, I didn’t even tell you I’d be gone. It was a last minute decision. We had been invited by friends Pauline and Steve from Santa Fe to join them in England for a few days. We had debated and waffled but Pauline pointed out a couple of flight options that would deliver us to Bristol, the closest airport to the Cotswolds, where their rented cottage was located. We booked the tickets one week before our departure and threw a few things in a suitcase, leaving behind the unfinished business of an apartment in complete disarray. I figure disorganization will still be waiting when we return, so why not take advantage of well-placed, welcoming friends?

Well-placed in the Cotswolds translates to a stone cottage on the edge of a postcard-like village with rolling hills dotted with other picturesque villages, horses, and grazing sheep. A short walk to the town of Nailsworth brought us to cute shops, nice cafes and a couple of good eateries. The primary activity in these parts is walking, and public footpaths ribbon their way across swaths of farmland, through woods, across wind-swept hilltops and between towns. Any hint of fair weather and everyone is out walking. We were guided by Pauline on a few short walks; she and Steve are very much into what the Italians call “il trekking”, and enjoy spending hours making circuitous hikes. I, unfortunately, can’t keep up with that kind of pace, so they slowed down and scaled down for us, in order to give us a taste of the activity and scenery. One such walk began with a pub lunch where a trail leads to the alleged source of the Thames. I say “alleged” because when we arrived there was a stone marker and other walkers with the same goal, but no water bubbled forth from the spring that is supposed to be the starting point for the famous river.

The path along an old canal was muddy, and my shoes quickly became caked and the hem of my jeans hopelessly dirtied. That’s when I started thinking of lines from Pride and Prejudice: “six inches deep in mud, I’m absolutely certain!” When we encountered our first stile, a sort of wooden ladder to allow you to cross over a stone wall, I knew I’d be immersing myself in the book and movie that I hold dear. Walking across the fields like Elizabeth Bennet did so often, like Jane Austen herself had done so frequently, was rather exciting. I mentioned this to Pauline who exclaimed, “I didn’t know you were a Jane Austen fan! We’ll have to go to Adlestrop!”

Adlestrop is a Cotswolds village where Jane’s cousin, a rector, resided and where she had visited on several occasions. We strolled the tidy, cottage-lined streets and visited the church he pastored. We glimpsed the parsonage across the street and walked a little bit of the footpath that ran between them to the fields beyond, where Jane Austen would walk to a neighboring town. I have to say that Pauline and I both felt a little giddy. Bryan and Steve humored us, biding their time until they could drag us off to the tea room for cream teas, where we discussed Jane Austen’s wit, which books we favored, and how her social commentary is so endearing. We’d unwittingly found a theme for the four-day visit.

The city of Bath had already been our list for a visit, but with the Jane Austen theme going, it was a must-see. To prepare, we watched the BBC video of Persuasion. Pauline formulated a tour to hit the highlights. We arrived to find a still-fashionable town with lots of activity centered in the historic core, much as it had been when Jane Austen lived there and used the city as the backdrop for two of her novels. We started at the gleaming Gothic Bath Abbey and worked our way around town. We saw a house where she lodged on a visit, as well as the home where she resided for four years, until her father’s death.

In the Pump Room we “took the waters” as millions have done before us, the mineral-rich sulfurous glass said to be very restorative. The Pump Room was an important gathering spot in Jane’s day. Pauline and I crossed the elegant room, gazed upon the stylish fountain spouting the famed water and ordered a couple of glasses. We toasted and sipped; we both cringed. It was warm and very metallic tasting. But the room was gorgeous and, except for a cafĂ© occupying the middle, it was what we’d seen in the movie. Out the windows we could see the ancient Roman baths below.

The Assembly Rooms were next. In Jane’s time the Assembly Rooms were a major source of entertainment, offering concerts, dances, and lectures. Pauline told Steve, “This is what they did for fun before TV.” The exterior is rather plain, but the interior is gorgeous, containing three warmly-painted halls illuminated by crystal chandeliers. I could imagine being in a ball gown dancing to orchestral music…and I rarely put on a dress.

We walked the promenade in front of the Royal Crescent, a very fashionable address in the early 1800s, walked in the garden near Jane’s residence, and along a canal, knowing that Jane Austen herself had trod these same streets. It was really quite thrilling. Bryan and Steve even caught the contagious spirit of it all and enjoyed the atmosphere, too. Thanks to Pauline’s knowledge of the city, we located all the scenes used to film Persuasion. The Jane Austen Center contains a museum and a nice gift shop, as well as well-informed staff and we wrapped up our day buying pretty books and postcards.

It wasn’t until we hit rush-hour traffic to get home that we were forcibly reminded of the 21st century. Watching period-set movies, strolling three hundred year old streets, and quoting brilliant literature had allowed me to become Jane…at least for a day. And what a beautiful day it was.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Running With The Bulls and Dancing With the Pope

We meandered into the unique triangular-shaped piazza in the pretty hill-top town of Offida and found it deceptively uncrowded. Being a rather sleepy place normally, we thought maybe the advertised Carnevale events would end up being more hoopla than heighten exhilaration. We milled around until suddenly, from up the street we heard the shrill of whistles blowing. Lots of them. We looked up the lane to see hoards of people all dressed in white shirts with red trim running wildly while snorting air into the little mouth instruments. Observers were scattering; we threw ourselves flush against a wall to avoid being trampled. A huge bull was loose and bucking about violently, sometimes turning and retreating a little ways uphill, causing shouts and more whistle-blowing. I noticed that many of the white shirts bore red stains, as if battle wounds had been inflicted. The bull charged past and we craned our heads to see a river of humanity flowing down after it. Thousands of Offidani were running and screaming and lifting liter-sized plastic bottles filled with local red wine as they dashed after the runaway bull. We waited several minutes before daring to step away from the wall. Hearts pounding, we laughed out loud and picked through the crowd toward the piazza, just in time to see that the bull was still on the loose and the hunters were still chasing him down. Back uphill they went, followed by about half the crowd. The rest remained in the piazza swigging their vino and trying to catch their breath.

That the bull wasn’t real didn’t lessen the excitement a whit. Offida’s annual version of “running of the bulls” is called Il Bove Finto, the fake bull. It’s constructed of wood and carried on the shoulders of designated men who bounce it about and make it come alive. The red stains mimicked blood, making them look like they’d been gored, but were instead from spilled wine which, from the looks of it, they started consuming with breakfast. So much for sleepy hamlet. Once the bull is captured it is symbolically killed and the horns lifted to touch a column on the city hall, just like in days gone by when a real bull was chased and slaughtered. The meat was distributed to the poor so they would have a rich meal of carne before lent began.

Okay, so I didn’t technically do any of the running, but my heart was pounding as if I had, just from the sheer adrenaline of thousands of drunken,merry people stampeding after a fake animal. Next year I need to get me a whistle and find myself a nice perch from which to watch the full run (and get better photos; these were taken by Bryan as he simultaneously tried to keep out of harm’s way and reach his arm up to snap pictures while being jostled from all sides).

But our Carnevale festivities didn’t end there. You remember Giorgio Tomassetti, who was recently a guest blogger? His family invited us to a cenone and party in a teensy hill town north of here. I adore Giorgio's mom, Cinzia; she is bubbly, sweet and eminently likeable. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone not liking her. So when an activity is proposed in her company I always say yes. We all assembled at Cinzia’s parents’ home. About half had opted to go in maschera. Clerical garb was popular this year; we had among our party a nun, a Franciscan monk, and the Pope himself. We departed as a caravan in three cars winding our way up the very curvy road – which Giorgio informed me is one of the most dangerous in the province – to a bright restaurant banquet room full of Italians chattering noisily (which is always such a welcoming sound to us) and tables prepared for a feast. I noted a lot more nuns, most of whom were men beneath the habits. Cenone, indeed. Large meal which had us groaning. Between courses the music would start up for a little dancing while the next round of plates were being prepared (and to expend some calories for the next round, too).

“Pope” Giovanni, Giorgio’s uncle, loves to dance. Once the music started he was lost to us all, unless he came to request a partner. The guy knows how to cut a rug, I tell you. He is very charming, so when he came to ask me to dance with him, he first requested my hand from Bryan very formally, then escorted me to the dance floor. He led marvelously and even twirled me a couple of times…who knew the Pope was such a good dancer?

We had a ball at the…uh, ball. The three-hour meal was fantastic and the company even better. We love being included in parties like this where we’re the only Americans; it’s always a convenient conversational topic when I start talking to people and they notice my accent.

Despite a caffĂ© at midnight when dinner ended, we found ourselves sleepy from the huge meal; we were the first of our group to depart at about 1:30 a.m. From the photos posted on Giorgio’s blog, though, we missed the real fun…the Pope took to dancing on the tables!

I’m still a bit tired; Carnevale week was pretty full. Running with bulls and dancing with popes kinda takes it out of you.

2008 Valerie Schneider

Saturday, February 02, 2008


While we were hauling loads of stuff from our old apartment to the new place, scrubbing and cleaning both, and feeling generally exhausted, Carnevale sprang upon Ascoli Piceno like someone had ignited a flame. All of a sudden the giant chandeliers were strung over the piazza, seasonal sweets appeared in the pastry shops and open-air food booths, and a general sense of mayhem began to prevail. Unlike many other Italian cities that celebrate the pre-lented rite of gluttony, Ascoli's Carnevale is not a complete bacchanalia. There will be plenty of parties between now and Ash Wednesday, to be sure, but a lot of the public activities are centered on the kids. We've been seeing lots of cuties in costumes. The schools had organized events for the little ones to put on skits, each class having planned and executed their costumes and themes. They are just too cute!

In the coming days we'll have a grand mascherata where the good citizens poke fun at local and national politics or happenings. Stages around the centro are erected for the groups who entered to play out their charades and be judged on costumes and originality. Here, it is mostly the parade participants who don masks and costumes; everyone else gathers for the passeggiata to observe and laugh. Kids are unleashed with cans of silly string and a shaving cream-like foam which they spray all over the place (and all over everyone in their paths). It's a messy form of "good clean fun".

We took a break from unpacking and cleaning to attend the festivities in nearby Offida, where an infamous Carnevale ritual takes place called Il Bove Finto (the fake bull). I'll fill you in on that once I get the photos loaded. Tonight we're impegnati (scheduled) to go with friends to an organized party in a teensy hill town where a cenone (grand dinner) and dancing are included. Costumes are thankfully optional. Since we can barely locate our normal clothes, we are relieved to not have to try to devise some sort of get-up.

But now, it's back to cleaning. And unpacking. Carnevale will have to wait a while.