Friday, May 30, 2008

Are You Dreaming of Italy?

A trip to Italy usually renders first-time visitors giddy in an "I can't believe I'm here" kind of way. Every view is stupendous, every historic sight incredible, and every bite of food amazing. A second trip usually brings on the "maybe I could live here" thoughts.

In the two years we've lived in Italy, we've both received numerous emails from readers who are dreaming and scheming a move to Italy, too. Many don't know where to start; others are in the throes of bureaucratic madness and in need of encouragement. We've been happy to offer what insight we can, having walked the road ourselves.

Here is the advice I generally dole out:

*Start at the beginning. Before giving any serious thought to making a permanent move, cash in all your available vacation time for an extended vacation. Spend as many weeks as you possibly can in one location. Rent a vacation home, stay put, and settle into life in that town so you can see what it is really like to live there. Vacationing in a place and living there are two very different things. Get your hair cut. Endure the lines at the post office. Learn the quirky local hours and rhythm. Experiencing daily life may firm your resolve or cause you to realize this isn't your dream after all.

*Take the first step. Seems obviously, but start with the first step, namely bureaucracy. It's infamous, slow, and frustrating...but necessary. If you plan on staying in Italy for more than three months, a visa is required. Start with the website of the Italian consulate you'll need to apply through and research their requirements.

*Stay the course. After you've determined the basic visa requirements, keep researching and reading for ways to work through the system. Some consulate agents delight in discouraging you. Others will require paperwork particular to that office (nothing you can do about it but obtain the necessary records). Keep at it; visit Expats in Italy for requirements and advice.

*Follow the footsteps. Get encouragement by reading Expats' success stories. Talk to others who have gone before you to learn how they did it, what they'd do differently, and see where they are today.

*Picture yourself here. Even if you're not making an immediate move it pays to gather information, read memoirs and blogs, watch movies set here, and look at images of Italy to see yourself in your new environment. The Sorrento webcam helps by giving you a window on daily life. There are loads of photo sites that offer up everday scenes, too.

*Keep dreaming. Hold onto that dream! Keep working toward it, envisioning and refining it, and generally stoking the flame to keep it alive. I found The Dream Giver by Bruce Wilkinson to be encouraging; I'm sure you'll find other books, websites and message boards to support and inspire you.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Screamy memey!

Several weeks ago I was tagged by Rob with this meme. I'd been holding onto it in order to roll it out and spring it on y'all just as I'm blowing town. A little bon voyage assignment for you to be working on while I'm somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.

1. Last movie you saw in a theater?
I’m not a big movie-goer; I prefer to lounge at home with a DVD. Last theater-attended film was a forgettable low-budget flick filmed in Anzio; we were invited to the premier, so that was pretty cool.

2. What book are you [re]reading?
I just finished re-reading Dances With Luigi by Paul Paolicelli. It’s a narrative of an Italian-American’s quest to understand his heritage, his family, and himself. It resonates just a tad with me.

3. Favorite board game?
Scrabble. Or Clue. Depends on my mood.

4. Favorite magazine?
To be honest I don’t read many of them anymore. Time ranks high. I still like National Geographic Traveler when I can find one. In Italy, I sometimes read Panorama or Cose di Casa. Most magazines here are fashion-glitz or celebrity trash. Like I care.

5. Favorite smells?
Smells are so hard to describe in quantitative terms but the extremely unique aroma of pinon wood smoke or sagebrush after a rain both evokes a feeling of calm and “home”. Fresh-baked bread takes me straight to my grandmother’s kitchen; she baked bread three times a week.

6. Favorite sounds?
The distinctive blast of propane into the envelope of a hot-air balloon, another very unique thing that is commonplace in New Mexico. That sound was my morning wake-up call nearly every Saturday and Sunday morning for years.

7. Worst feeling in the world?
Being forsaken. I also happen to think that 'forsaken' is the saddest word in the English language.
8. What is the first thing you think of when you wake up?
About how good that morning cappuccino is going to taste.

9. Favorite fast food place?
Blake’s LottaBurger. Green chile cheeseburger. Oh yeah.

10. Future child’s name?
Gotta say that after 21 years of marriage, ain’t happenin’. But future cats are certainly in the future and I think Duke Ellington may be a good name. Or maybe Leyla if it's a girl.

11. Finish this statement. “If I had lots of money I’d….?
Give to my favorite charities, then buy a small place here and send airline tickets to my family and friends to come visit.

12. Do you sleep with a stuffed animal?
Not since I was about 13. I had an enormous and unusual stuffed animal collection thanks to two uncles who spoiled us.

13. Storms - cool or scary?
Both at the same time. I love the sound of thunder reverberating up and down a desert canyon but don’t want to be out there with that lightening!

14. Favorite drink?
Water. Seriously. Close second is cappuccino.

15. Finish this statement, “If I had the time I would….”?
Write that book and screenplay that have been rattling around in my head.

16. Do you eat the stems on broccoli?

17. If you could dye your hair any color, what would be your choice?
I’m already dyeing it my natural color, bruno.

18. Name all the different cities/towns you’ve lived in?
Bellevue; Columbus; Lakewood; Albuquerque; Corrales; Anzio; Ascoli Piceno.

19. Favorite sports to watch?
Football (Americano, not European). Harness-racing, but only live…it’s not as exciting on TV.

20. One nice thing about the person who sent this to you?
I just ‘met’ Rob, but he must be a nice guy if he’s been reading my blog, don’t you think? ;)

21. What’s under your bed?
Definitely dust. It accumulates way too fast in Italy. A couple of pairs of shoes, out of season bed coverings (in a zipped-up plastic bag to keep out all that dust).

22. Would you like to be born as yourself again?
I can only and always be myself.

23. Morning person, or night owl?
I guess morning person. Just not too early in the morning. But I’m no longer a night owl, that’s for sure.

24. Over easy, or sunny side up?
Over medium, actually. Preferably smothered with green chile sauce.

25. Favorite place to relax?
Anywhere in the mountains puts me at peace. I’ve also found it relaxing to meander the narrow, medieval streets during riposo too, when the place is pretty silent.

26. Favorite pie?
Elderberry. Few people make elderberry pie anymore. If that’s not available, I’ll generally choose peach.

27. Favorite ice cream flavor?
Ice cream? Ice cream? Only gelato for me! I like any combination that starts with Bacio (chocolate-hazelnut). Add to that coconut, or stracciatella, or frutti di bosco, or…ah heck, I just like gelato.

28. Of all the people you tagged this to, who’s most likely to respond first?
Boh. Actually I’m going to open it up wide for everyone to play along rather than tag anyone specifically. Who will join the fun?.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Packing Avoidance and Frenzy

We are preparing to hit the road, or the skies as the case may be, and true to form I've spent the past several days in denial and avoidance. I dislike packing for a trip. I mean, intensely dislike it. I love to travel, but the getting there part sucks. I hate debating over the weather, what outfits will go for what days and occasions, whether that shirt will get too wrinkled, the "will I wear this or will it sit in the suitcase for 2 weeks" ponderings, and the agonizing over whether I am taking too much (the answer to that is almost always yes).

So I slip into denial mode to avoid the whole procedure. I clean the house, because who wants to come home to a dirty home? I reason. I wander the centro storico to procure gifts and goodies to take along. I catch up on writing projects...well, that needed to be done come hell or high water anyway. Yesterday I brooked no argument when Bryan wanted to participate in the annual Cantine Aperte, because who wouldn't want to drive through the wild flower-filled fields to tiny wineries that we've never visited before? Getting lost three times over wasn't part of the plan or time scheme and I lost a lot more packing time than even I had anticipated.

Today...well, the Infiorata in Montefiore dell'Aso was something I'd been wanting to see and looking forward to for weeks. Surely there was time to fit that in, have a little lunch and come to resume the trip prep operations, right?

We leave tomorrow to drive to Roma where we'll bunk with Giorgio and Francesca, and no doubt collect another suitcase filled with family-bound gifts. It's nice to have airport shuttle service courtesy of Giorgio, thus avoiding sky-high parking fees. Tuessday we'll be airborne for 11 hours (or is it more? Heaven forbid.) We'll be back in the compagnia of family.

But not to worry...the nest of the Pinon Tree will not be abandoned. I have a few tricks up my sleeve and stored on my memory stick, so hop on by. You won't even know I'm gone.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


Two years ago today we stepped off a plane in Fiumicino with jetlag and jitters. Two years! And to think we had initally planned for just a year of this adventure; no way would one year have been enough. Two years have passed and we've still barely skimmed the surface.

It has really taken us this long just to get comfortable with the language. As a sort of celebratory coincidence, I just happened to have finished reading my first actual, complete book in Italian, Io Non Ho Paura by Niccolo Ammaniti. Okay, I had previously read several of the short books in the Travels With Valentina series, in which a precocious kid named- you guessed it, Valentina- visits each and every region of the bel paese. She manages to hit every major sight, eat all the regional specialties, quote all the famous authors or poets and generally be so perfect as to be annoying. By the end of three such books I was muttering vafanculo Valentina under my breath.

Io Non Ho Paura was different. Not annoying; not a children's series. I'd watched the suspense movie based on this book about three years ago. The movie was so well done that the climax scene made me jump out of my seat. I enjoyed the book, and loved that I successfully read it all the way through without *too* many glances at the dictionary.

An even better occurrence gave me cause to celebrate, though. Last week we boarded a train bound for Bologna to find our assigned seats already occupied. The twenty-something girl with belongings scattered about had boarded at the previous stop and didn't want to budge, whining that the electrical outlet at her seat didn't work and she was watching a DVD. We shrugged and agreed that since other seats were currently available we'd let her be for now. We took seats across the aisle.

An hour later when the train stopped and filled up, others boarded who were assigned to the seats we'd be occupying. We rose and told the girl to return to her own seat now. She had finished the movie she had been watching and had popped in a cartoon. She started to whine again about the non-functioning outlet, she couldn't plug in her player, blah blah. I politely but firmly told her that since the seats were now all filled in our car we needed those to which we had been assigned. She didn't want to move and started to argue. I interrupted her and said, "Yeah, I understand, but it's not my problem. The car is full, and these people want to sit down. These are our seats; we've let you stay here to finish your movie but now you need to get up, gathering your belongings, and go back to your own seat." I said it all in Italian without hesitation and without getting flustered. When I finished my little speech, the lady sitting next to the girl nodded firmly in approval and immediately rose to let the girl out.

It felt good! I was finally able to express myself in response to a situation, immediately and in Italian without stumbling through or grunting out unconjugated verbs. Linguistic difficulties tend to submerge one's own personality to some degree; jovial jokings and firm demands can be hard to convey. Finally, I was able to say exactly what I wanted to, even tinged with a little edge of bitchy. Finally...a little more Valerie emerges through the fog of language learning! It felt damn good.

Two years; it has certainly taken me longer to reach this linguistic point than I had hoped but I'm getting there. Here's to Year Three!

At home in Ascoli Piceno. Piazza del Popolo at night.

Monday, May 12, 2008


When Giorgio and Francesca recently came to visit, their main goal (aside from seeing us) was to explore the wonders of fried food amid the booths of the Festa del Fritto Misto. Such an experience was one that should be shared they reasoned, and so they called their friends, Franco and Lilli, to come and join us in the piazza for the fat-fest.

Franco and Lilli live in Rome not far from Giorgio and Francesca. Their families have been friends for 35 years...ever since Francesca and Lilli were occupying neighboring hospital beds after delivering their first-born sons. The gals bonded; the boys, who were born on the same day at nearly the same hour, are best friends.

The fact that Franco and Lilli were in nearby Acquaviva Picena for a family event meant they should be called in; they wouldn't want to be left out. We have found that Italians don't like to do things in a solitary manner; the more you can involve in something -especially if it revolves around food - the better. They were thrilled to be included; Lilli was looking for just such an excuse to escape the "confines of family and village".

We first met Franco and Lilli about a week after our arrival in Italy. They have a beach home a few minutes' walk from the one we were occupying in Anzio. Being such dear friends of Giorgio and Francesca, we saw them often throughout that first summer. Language barriers kept us from interacting too deeply with them, as Lilli talks a blue-streak at lightening speed and refused to slow down for our dull ears.

When we announced our move to Ascoli Piceno they were critical. Lilli thinks provincial life in Ascoli Piceno is "too boring". Franco hails from nearby Acquaviva Picena; he told us that "Ascoli is a beautiful town but is piccolo piccolo. It is hot in the summer and cold in the winter." He said he went to school there and hated it. "School" was translated to us by Giorgio as "college". We thought nothing more of it, knowing there was a university and a music school in town.

So it came as a surprise when, during their recent evening visit as we strolled the streets, Franco started pointing out a few landmarks and talking about how they were used fifty years ago when he was here. Fifty years ago? He's not that old; surely he couldn't have been here in college fifty years ago. I asked about this. Having a deeper understanding of the Italian language now, I grasped the mix-up. He was in Ascoli for collegio. Sounds similar, very different meaning. The collegio was a boarding school, and Franco was sent there at the age of 9 after his father was killed in the war. No wonder he disliked Ascoli!

As we walked down Corso Mazzini and neared our door he pointed out the building that had formerly been his home for nearly ten years. It was the building next to our own, the very building that now houses offices and the senior center. The building with the garden behind that our windows overlook. He occupied a dormitory room with other war orphans and children whose recently-widowed mothers couldn't care for. It was run by church. Franco pointed out the music room, where he found his main solace (he played clarinet). The chapel of the convent section is where the seniors now kick it up on Sunday nights.

He opened the window in our apartment and gazed into the park. "The barns are gone," he said sadly. There were animals in his day...chickens for eggs, a couple of cows and a few sheep for milk, both to drink and make cheese from. The park was mainly an orto, a vegetable garden, to keep the kids properly fed. They each helped in tending the various plots and fruit trees. He was disappointed to see many of the orchard trees are no longer there. He told how he used to climb them to the top fearlessly to obtain the highest-dwelling fruits.

The building was unheated; the war was still going on and even afterwards, fuel was hard to come by. He recounts freezing in his bed with all his clothes on in the winter, while sweltering up there under the eaves in the summer. Poor Franco! I hadn't understood his derogatory comments about the city we find so beautiful. Ah, he told us, "it's changed a lot...there is comfort here now. But back then I hated it, and I still have bad memories of that time."

He looked out our south-facing window at the Eremo di San Marco, eerily lit up at night on the hillside rising beyond the city. "We used to walk up there," he said. These outings for the boys were to get them into the countryside, and they would walk up the mule tracks for five or six miles to picnic at the hermitage.

I wanted to ask him many questions about those days, but he didn't want to talk any further than these recounted memories. That's okay. Maybe next time he'll discuss it more. Even if he doesn't, we gained a deeper understanding of our neighborhood and of the soft-spoken man we met during our first week in Italy.

Friday, May 09, 2008

April Showers Bring May....Snows?

The skies have been brilliantly sunny and practically cloudless, not unlike those we experienced daily in New Mexico. May Day brought hoards of visitors to Ascoli for the Fritto Misto event, while the majority of locals we knew flocked to the beach for a day of sun, seafood, and a long passeggiata along the lungomare. While the water is still too cold for swimming, the sun-warmed air was sufficient for getting a jump on their tans and we have been seeing bronzed faces around the centro storico. So it seemed a bit incongruous, given these climatic conditions, that when May 1 showed up on the calendar, my morning walk around the centro brought the sight of snow flurries. Each day since then, the snowfall has steadily increased. It is even accumulating and drifting in certain parts of town.

The snowfall is not of the crystallized moisture variety, but is more least to me as an allergy sufferer. The flurries in question are descending constantly from the pioppi, the poplar trees lining the two rivers that enfold Ascoli by their protective watery ravines.

Like the cottonwoods in New Mexico, pioppi produce a fine, cotton-like fluff of pollens that, once airborne, floats and flutters into the house. When I'm out walking it blows into my face, even on occasion right into my mouth, and sets off an allergic reaction of misery. The air has been littered with it, truly with the appearance of snowfall. Cottonwood is, I have recently learned, a variety of poplar. In our village they called it the "Corrales Crud," because the location on the Rio Grande guaranteed the cottony stuff would fall all over our hamlet and choke up our cars' air filters.

I've never been a great fan of this season. While I enjoy the wildflowers currently in bloom - vast stands of poppies among them - I selfishly abhor the symptoms the new vegetation produces.

Last year's drought meant there wasn't such a noticeable problem. This year, the April showers have brought May snows. To me, it's worse than the winter variety. I'm told that the itchy eyes, sneezing and general foggy feeling that I've been experiencing won't last too much longer as the poplars are currently peaking and will be finished soon. Until then, I'll be be sweeping up cotton-snow daily and cursing the maledetta primavera.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Learning to Flex

One thing we have learned from living in Italy is the value of flexibility. Through our various and sundry experiences with la burocrazia, holiday schedules, seemingly-arbitrary store hours and various other interruptions, we’ve come to realize that any schedule that we may have tried to keep for the day can be wiped away in an instant. Therefore, it’s usually better to keep things as loosely-planned as possible to avoid not only disappointment but outright frustration. As Americans, this goes against the grain of everything we were taught and adhered to in our former lives, where appointments were to be diligently kept and days planned out accordingly. Here it’s just not feasible.

Such was the case this week. As I mentioned in the previous post, I have a lot to do: research, writing, correspondence, marketing, not to mention the stuff of normal daily life. We knew that our friends Giorgio and Francesca had been considering a visit, though had not fixed any set dates. When they heard about the gigantic Festa del Fritto Misto to be held for four fat-filled days in the centro storico of Ascoli Piceno, Giorgio immediately timed the visit to coincide with that. For Giorgio, all things must revolve around food. Va bene; I’ll work around that, sending them off to the festa and suchlike activities, thought I. As if.

They are wonderful people; we love them dearly. They are incredible friends who are, in fact, like family to us. And so we just accept that part of their collective character as a couple is to create a whirlwind wherever they go. Schedule? Beh. While saying, “just do what you need to, we’ll be fine” in one breath, they are saying, “we’d like visit Loreto,” and “our friends Lilli and Franco want to meet up with all of us at the festa” in the next breath.

Since they were here for just a couple of days we decided to be flexible and go with the flow, rather than offend or not spend time with them. They have a taken a liking to Ascoli but want to see it with us; they want us to show them the town and direct them to our favorite spots. They want to see it through our experiences, which is very sweet. So my piles grew aswork got shoved aside and we enjoyed the compagnia of our Italian “famiglia” instead. In doing so we also learned something about our own city…but that is a story for next time. In Italy, flexibility is an important virtue, but one that will present rewards in the process.