Thursday, December 27, 2007

Buone Feste!

For those of you who celebrate Christmas, I apologize for the belated greeting, and I hope your Christmas was a happy one!

The Italian word for Christmas, Natale, is only one vowel away from my name, Natalie. I must admit that when I stroll through the city at this time of year, I feel famous. Buon means good, so at first glance, it appears that all the shops are festooned with signs that read: Good Natalie! Love that.

The Italian way to say Happy New Year is Felice Anno Nuovo. I'd just like to point out the critically important second n in the word anno. About 12 years ago, I was writing out holiday cards to family and friends in the States, as Davide, my Italian boyfriend (now husband) looked on. At the bottom of the cards, I had written: Buon Natale e Felice Ano Nuovo. (Note the lack of the second n in anno.) Davide started to laugh--one of those laughs where he can't speak for a good 60 seconds, complete with tears streaming down his face. When he finally pulled himself together, he told me about the missing n.

Apparently, I was wishing my loved ones a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Anus. Oops.
So with all the n's in tact, allow me to wish you all a Felice AnNo Nuovo and a prosperous , healthy 2008!

P.S. Here's another double-n greeting--this time for my mom. Happy Birthday!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ye Olde Pig's Foot

Close your eyes. Now picture your holiday table laden with a scrumptious feast. What do you see? Turkey? Ham? Latkes? Your great aunt's marshmallow yam casserole? Okay, now feast your eyes on this:

Look closely. Yes, nestled on a bed of lentils is...a pig's foot. Complete with manicured toenails, it appears. Zampone is typical fare during the holiday season in Italy, and it's most common on New Year's Eve. The lentils are thought to bring luck. Not to the pig, apparently.

I've tasted this, and actually it's quite good. But it's only good if you're not staring at the actual pig's foot while you eat. I know, I'm a hypocritical carnivore--I love eating meat, I just don't want to be reminded what it looked like before it came to my plate. If you'd like to surprise your family this holiday season, click here for cooking instructions. Although you might want to have them taste it first before you reveal what it is.
Buon Appetito!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Holiday Wake-Up Call

Today is la festa di San Nicolo here in Italy--the festival of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nick is considered the patron saint of children, sailors, ships and the needy (proving that saints were multi-tasking as early as the 3rd century).

Last night, San Nicolo came to our home while we slept, and left gifts for our three children. This year, like most years, the holiday snuck up on my husband and me--er--San Nicolo. By the time San Nicolo got his act together and finally went out to buy gifts for my kids (at 7:00 last night), it was slim pickins in the toy shops. My youngest daughter wanted some battery-operated talking parrot. But last night there were none to be had. Of course, San Nicolo brought a talking parrot to two kids in her Kindergarten class, and these kids brought the parrots in today for show-and-tell. When my daughter pointed out the unfairness of this, I said that San Nicolo was obviously not on the ball this year, but he'd certainly pass her request on to his cousin, Santa Claus.

In other European countries, including Germany, children put out their boots, and Sinter Klaus fills them with oranges and candy. Lucky, lucky parents.

However, I choose to look at the failed talking parrot incident as a wake-up call. I vow to get my Christmas shopping done before December 24th this year. For once. Mark my words. And if I can get ahold of the coveted talking parrot, I will post a photo on my blog.

Until then, here's wishing you small crowds and ample parking near the front of the store. And if those things elude you...lots of online shopping with a high speed internet connection.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It's alive!

My blog, that is. After almost a month of neglect, I found it gasping for breath, eyes closed, pulse weak, begging for a glass of water.

I wanted to post about Halloween, and the fact that no one goes trick-or-treating, even though the shops are all festooned with Halloween decorations in October. And then I wanted to explain that we always have a Halloween party for our children and their friends, and take them trick-or-treating in our building, but we have to distribute bags of candy ahead of time to the neighbors so they'll have something to give when the kids come by. And how some of the neighbors had to be taught trick-or-treating basics 101, because the first year, some of them would dump the all the candy in one kid's bag, wave to the rest of the candyless kids, smile, then shut the door.

But no one wants to read a Halloween post on the eve of Thanksgiving, so I'm moving on to Turkey Day--a brief post today, then more tomorrow.

Every year I make Thanksgiving dinner for my husband's family, who are all Thanksgiving experts, of course, because they've seen American Thanksgiving dinners in movies.

A few years ago on Thanksgiving, my father-in-law gathered my daughters up onto his lap, and said in his let-me-tell-you-a-story voice:

"Girls, today is a very special day for Americans."

My girls looked at him expectantly.

He continued: "Today is the anniversary of the day the Americans won their independence from England."

In the end, it's all about food and family.

Happy 4th of--er, Thanksgiving, to all!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The most expensive treats I've ever made...

Today I made some treats for my daughter's class, per her request. She chose this recipe because it's quick, and my family loves these. However, one of the main ingredients is a rarity here in Italy.

And expensive.

No, I didn't make Caviar truffles. I made...Special K Crispy Bars. And that rare, expensive ingredient?

Peanut butter.

That's right--most Italians have never even tasted peanut butter. And for those who have....are you sitting down?.....most of them don't like the taste.

I can they function as a society without peanut butter? It's a mystery.

If you can find peanut butter in Italy, it's often in the foreign foods section of the supermarket--right next to the soy sauce and taco shells. In one store, it was actually in the refrigerated foods section--Italians obviously don't know that peanut butter has (at least) a 57-year-shelf life.

When you do find peanut butter, it only comes in tiny jars, like this:

And since demand (and supply) is so low, p.b. prices are high. This miniscule jar my daughter is holding set me back 4 Euros and 4 cents. That equates to--count 'em--
For anyone who's interested, here's the crispy bar recipe. (Note: Not recommended for denture-wearers. Highly recommended for anyone who has at least 2 or 3 pairs of pants with spandex/Lycra--anything that stretches. You'll need these pants immediately after polishing off half the pan.)
2 cups sugar
2TBS. butter
2 cups Karo light corn syrup (If you live in Italy, get someone from the U.S. to send you a bottle. Not my mom, though--she's my American baking ingredients supplier, so she's got her hands full)
6 cups Special K cereal, crushed
1 1/2 cups peanut butter
1 package chocolate chips
Melt butter in a large pot and then add sugar and Karo syrup. Stir constantly. Bring to a full boil and let boil for one minute. Remove from heat. Add peanut butter and stir until creamy. Add Special K and stir until well-mixed. Press mixture onto cookie sheet. Melt chocolate chips in the microwave and spread over mixture. Let cool until top has hardened. Cut into squares. Eat. And if your Italian friends don't like them, this just means there's more for you.
Buon appetito!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Water Fountain Drinking 101

During our visit to the States this past summer, I realized my daughters weren't up to speed on American kid culture--when their cousins talked about things like Hannah Montana and American Girl dolls, my girls had no idea what they were talking about. I could have predicted that--after all, we don't get American television stations and commercials here.

But there were other things they didn't know that I never would have predicted.

One day, my 8-year-old daughter stopped to get a drink from a water fountain while we were shopping at the mall. She finished, and I saw that her shirt was wet. Not just damp, mind you--she had water splashed all down the front.

Me: Honey, what happened to your shirt?
Daughter: Nothing. I was just getting a drink.
Me: Is the fountain broken? Did the water squirt out too fast?
Daugher, eyebrow raised: Noooo. Why?
Me (wondering how in the world she got her shirt that wet from a water fountain): Can you show me how you took that drink?

So my daughter pressed the button, and up came the stream of water. She stuck out her tongue and started lapping up the water, getting her shirt even wetter.

Me: Honey, what are you doing?
Daughter (now exasperated): Getting a drink! (The "What does it look like I'm doing??" was implied).

And then I remembered, and I had to laugh.

When Americans go to Italy, one of the things they notice is the lack of drinking fountains. But Italy has water fountains, they're just disguised. Here's one in the photo below:

It look more like a bird bath, or a place where the village washerwoman rinses out the clothes, doesn't it? Not many people drink from these fountains--mostly joggers and kids. When you do, the water comes rushing out in a turbo gush, and you have no choice but to try and lap it up as best you can. So that was my daughter's drinking fountain point of reference. When I did an American drinking fountain demo for her, she laughed, tried it again, and drank like a pro.

When in America...

Monday, October 15, 2007

Boats, boats, and more boats

Yesterday was the annual Barcolana, a regatta held just off the coast of Trieste. It attracts sailing enthusiasts from all over the world, transforming little 'ol Trieste into a bona fide tourist attraction.

The day was gorgeous but wildly windy, and many smaller sailboats had to bow out of the race. Here are a few shots:

The leaning sail on the left side of the photo is the Alpha Romeo, which won the race in a record 55 minutes. The speck in the sky is a helicopter carrying people who make sure everyone follows the rules. Not an easy task, if Italians drive their boats the way they drive their cars.

Here are some spectators on the boulders that line the coast, with the Castello Miramare off in the distance. Many of them were sipping wine. I don't know about you, but I'd say wine just doesn't mix with jagged boulders surrounded by a swirling, frigid sea. Go ahead--call me prudent.

Here's a view of the 1800 boats as seen over the terracotta rooftops of Trieste.

And here is my first attempt at embedding my own video. I wasn't actually tryng to capture the scenery as much as the sounds...the church bells tolling, the sea and the wind. As it turns out, the sun was so bright that I couldn't see a darn thing I was filming. If you take that into account, it's not that bad. But even if you do take the blinding sun into account, you'll see that I won't likely be nominated for any film awards this year. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A little Italian opera...

Listen to what this man does with a few Italian words. If this doesn't make your day, I don't know what will.

Thanks to children's author Mary Hershey for the link.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The best part about having a blog...

A woman named Barbara emailed me a few weeks ago saying she had found my blog when she googled laundromat and Trieste. Why would someone google those two words? Good question. Her husband had been invited to a conference at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics here in Trieste, and she was coming along to see the sights (of Italy, not the Physics Centre). She wanted to know where she could get her laundry done. More specifically, she wondered if she would have access to a clothes dryer. Ah, Barbara.

So I said I'd check into the landromat situation for her, and if she'd like to meet for coffee, I'd be happy to treat her. When she arrived, she said that she'd passed the link to my blog along to some of the other wives, and wondered if they could come for coffee, too. Certo! I said, and that's just what we did.

Here's a photo of the group, from left to right: Pat, Bea, Barbara, Phyllis, and me*.

* Hair disclaimer: It rained off and on that day, so in this photo, my hair appears to be straight on one side, and then there's some sort of frizz action going on with the other side. My hair does not normally do this...only for photos that I want to post on the world wide web. Sigh.

Anyway, all four women are wives of physicists who were attending the conference on Accelerators Operations (thankfully, none of them really knew what this entailed, so I didn't feel left out). After leading them astray a few times, I finally found the historic Caffè Tommaseo, and we had one of the best cups of coffee I've had in Italy. Ever. Granted, coffee at the Caffè Tommaseo costs three times the normal price, but it was worth it.

We chatted about traveling and Trieste and their families and mine, and they were all lovely, warm people. I wished I could have spent the whole morning with them and show them around the city, but my babysitting fairy godmother (a.k.a. husband) had to go back to work, leaving me with our 21-month-old son and an illegally-parked car.

In the end, the ladies ended up treating me (Grazie!), and I realized I never did give Barbara the address of a laundromat, so I hope she made it to Venice in a freshly-laundered state.

The next time there's a conference on particle accelerators, Barbara, I'll have the laundromat address ready. And the coffee's on me!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

To follow up my vendemia post, I wanted to share a few photos, courtesy of my daughter's teacher. This first shot shows the kids picking the grapes from the stems, and dropping them into the bucket.

And now the fun begins! Here's my daughter (that's her orange sleeve on the left) embracing two classmates as they stomp and squish and smush the grapes in their bucket.

Her teacher told me yesterday that the grape juice they mushed with their tootsies will be made into wine, and the kids will get to bring home a bottle at the end of the year. I love Italy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mommy, where does wine come from?

My 8-year-old daughter asked this question at dinner the other night. She wasn't satisfied with my answer (the grocery store), so my Italian husband filled her in on the wine-making process. He's not a wine expert, by any means. His wine I.Q. is average--for an Italian. Which is waaaaay above my wine I.Q.

The reason my daughter asked this question is because her 3rd grade teacher had planned a field trip to a local village where they'd be participating in a vendemia--a grape harvest. Our daughter informed us (with that What-kind-of-parents-are-you? look on her face) that every child in her class had attended a vendemia, except for her. I just hope no one calls Social Services.

So yesterday the class went and learned how wine is made. They cut the grapes from the vines, tossed them in big buckets, removed their shoes and socks, and started squishing. (My daughter reports that this was both icky and fun at the same time). After the last of the grape juice was washed off of their 8-year-old toes, they heaped the grape-y mess onto sieves, then tasted the grape juice that filtered through. My daughter isn't clear as to whether they actually drank the juice that their bare (and who knows how clean?) feet had touched. I kind of hope not.

The whole class filed off the field trip bus happy and tired, each child toting a bag of small, purple grapes that taste like sweet dessert wine. The teacher carried two bottles of wine (unopened) in her arms. After a day of wine-making with 25 third-graders, I suspect those bottles came in handy.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Laundry Beasts Unveiled

Thanks for all your guesses! The moment has arrived to reveal the winners, so without further ado, let me introduce you to the beast that plagues my laundry from May to September...(cue movie theme song to Friday the 13th)...

Yes, it's the dreaded grasshopper. Not the cute green grasshoppers that grow no longer than your pinky finger. Oh, no. My laundry beasts can get as long as the palm of my hand, and they squirt this brown stuff that doesn't wash out of our clothing (I'm not even going to try and guess what the brown stuff is. I've decided I'd rather not know). Not only that, but if one of these suckers gets trapped in an article of clothing that I've tossed into the ironing pile, it eats its way out. That's right--it munches holes in our clothes. I know they don't hurt people (no biting or stinging), but you have to admit it: they're gross. Really gross.

The photo above is a stock photo I got off the internet, as my husband left the chord we need for the digital camera in his office. However, when he brings it back home, I'll post the photo I took of a laundry beast on a pair of khaki shorts.

Okay, now that the shuddering has subsided and you're once again thankful for your laundry-beast-free clothes dryers, here's the first winner. The envelope please....our first winner is Julie C.! She's the only one who guessed grasshopper, so she'll be getting a shipment of chocolate in the mail! Woo Hoo!

However, there are two more winners! Unfortunately for me, another species of laundry beast emerges in the fall and winter. Just as the grasshoppers retreat to their underground winter abode, another beast emerges...(cue music from any horror movie of your choice)...

The stinkbug. These babies are only about as big as a dime, but they're still gross. And since we wear lots of brown, gray and black in the winter, these suckers blend right in. Oh, and have I mentioned they fly? So if one gets inadvertantly brought in with the laundry, we might hear it buzzing around the room at night. The buzzing always ceases when the lights go on...sly little devils.

And they love to hide at the bottom of socks. Once when we went to the mountains, I felt a pricking sensation on my toe after I'd gotten dressed that morning. When I removed my sock, there was the sinkbug--having survived being folded up into my socks, placed in my sock drawer, packed in my suitcase a few days later, and having my foot shoved into the very sock that the stickbug had called home. And yet, I felt no pity for the stinkbug. There wasn't time, really, as I screamed, hopping on one foot across the room and flinging my sock out of the window onto the surprised passersby below.

So...who wants to move to Italy now? Huh? As I don't see any raised hands, we'll move on to the second round of winners...

First, there's Joan--she said a stinkbug was one of those lime green bugs, but I'll give her the chocolate, anyway. And then we have Tina, who mentioned beetles...good enough for chocolate, in my opinion.

Woo hoo! Now if the winners will email their addresses to me, I'll get the chocolate (or pitcher, whichever they prefer) off in the mail.

A big thanks to cynjay, katia, africakid, danette haworth, katrina, and sruble for playing! I'll have another contest up next month, so I hope you'll stop by. And Katia, please pass the wine, as I'm trying to muster up the courage to bring in a load of laundry...

Saturday, September 08, 2007

I'm back...with another contest.

Thanks for everyone's comments, and I want to apologize (once again!) for letting so much time pass in between posts. All is well, we've just been really busy settling back in. I'm going back to teaching this year at the international school here in Trieste--I'll be teaching 4th grade--so I've also been busy getting the classroom ready for Monday when the kids come (ack!).

My husband got a new digital camera this summer, and I still don't know how to transfer photos to my computer. BUT...I do promise to make him teach me in the next few days so I can do another post--a laundry post (you didn't think the laundry posts were finished, did you??) So in the next few days, you can look forward to a post entitled: Laundry Beasts.

Come to think of it, this has contest potential, doesn't it? If you can guess what laundry beasts refers to, I'll send you a pitcher from Trieste. For a photo, click here to see the one I sent to Jeff and Sue, the winners of my first contest. Although, I must say that the pitcher I'll be sending this time will be about half the size of Jeff and Sue's pitcher...although I love Jeff and Sue, it costs about a million dollars to ship one of these babies.

Okay then, let's say your answers have to be in the comments section of this post by Wednesday, September 12 (I'll check them when I wake up on Thursday morning). You can take as many guesses as you wish. In the event of a tie, I'll choose a name from a hat.

Buona fortuna a tutti! :-)

Sunday, August 19, 2007

We're leavin' on a jet plane...

Note: I meant to post this before we left, but it didn't post, for some reason. The trip went well, and I'll post again soon (after my jet-lagged brain recovers).

Our summer stateside vacation is finally over, and we leave for Italy later tonight. Aside from family and friends, here are the top three things I'll miss most about the U.S.:

1. the clothes dryer, and all the warm, soft, fluffy clothes that it produces. Sigh.

2. caramel frappucinos

3. ample parking

Here are the top three things I'm looking forward to when we return:

1. The clinking sound of real cups and saucers when I go into a bar for coffee. Since Italians never get coffee to go, there are no paper/Styrofoam cups with lids in Italy. The clinking comes from people setting their cups onto saucers, baristi clearing the cups and saucers from the bar and then stacking them in the sink to await washing. It's funny--I never paid much attention to the clinking until I got here and noticed it was missing.

2. pizza--As much as I love American pizza, I've missed the Italian version. It's not that one is necessarily better than the other. Like chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cookies--both are good. But different.

3. sagras--These are outdoor cookouts with live music held all over the city and its outskirts. The menu's usually the same--grilled meats, french fries, sauerkraut, Nutella-filled crepes--yanno, food that's bad for you. Can't wait!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Big 4-0

Today's my 40th (eek!) birthday.

If I were in Italy today, my Italian friends would not have taken me out for lunch or a celebratory birthday drink. Nope. I would have been expected to take them out and buy them a round of drinks for my b-day. That's right. As the birthday girl, I would also be the one to bring my own cake. At least I wouldn't be expected to buy my own gifts, though. There's always that.

The Italian translation of "Happy Birthday" is Buon Compleanno, but Italians usually don't say this to you on your birthday. Instead, they say Tanti Auguri, which means "Many Good Wishes." Come to think of it, Tanti Auguri is probably best tranlated as: "I wish you happiness, health, and above all, prosperity, so you can take me out and buy me a drink on your birthday."

Tanti auguri to you all!

Friday, August 03, 2007

My first meme

CynJay tagged me with this meme ages ago, so I think it's about time I followed through! If you've never heard of a meme before, here are the rules:

Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.

Since this is a blog about ex-pat life in Italy, I'll try to list 8 things that also offer insight into la bella vita Italiana. Here goes:

1. I've been married twice the same guy. We had a wedding in the U.S. on December 21, and another one in Trieste on December 26. I got to wear my wear my wedding gown twice! And we got to share our special day with friends and family from both sides of the ocean.

When my Italian in-laws saw the video of our American wedding reception, their first comment wasn't about the beautiful inn, decorations, cake or guests. No. The first thing out of their mouths was: "No one is smoking!" Hadn't thought of that, but they were right.

2. I wore a cowboy hat at my wedding.
No, I'm not Texan (although I did live there from 5th-8th grade), and I only wore it for about 2 minutes. And it wasn't my idea. Or even my hat. At Italian weddings, friends of the bride and groom plan scherzi (jokes or pranks) for the happy couple, which can range from silly to downright embarrassing. For one of these scherzi, my husband and I had to wear cowboy hats (because all Americans are cowboys, of course), sit in chairs facing each other, and hold a spoon in our mouths with a lighted candle on each ( the candle was stuck to the spoon with wax, so no balancing act was required, thank goodness). We were then given water pistols, and the first to put out the other's flame won. I, of course, emerged victorious.

3. I've had purple hair.
Okay, so it wasn't purple purple. But still. We had spent the summer in Italy, and I decided to get my hair colored before we went back home. I'm naturally a brunette with a hint of red highlights. So when the hairdresser asked if I wanted a reddish tinge added to the brown color, I agreed. When I took a gander at the finished product, my hair was brown. But in the right light, it had a purple sheen. Yikes. And my sister's wedding was a few weeks away. I later learned that when my family picked us up from the airport, my mom and sister were mouthing "OMG! Her hair is purple!" behind my back.When Americans color their hair, the goal (usually) is for it to look natural. Italians, on the other hand, figure they're paying an arm and a leg for salon-styled hair, so they might as well show it off.

4. I once taught a princess a thing or two.
When I first came to Trieste, I taught Kindergarten at the International School of Trieste. One of my students was actually a princess who lived in a real castle, the Castello di Duino. And she and her mother (also a princess) were two of the most down-to-earth, pleasant people I've ever met.

5. I've attended mass at the Vatican.
My parents, sister and I went to Rome for spring break, and we got tickets to the Vatican for Easter mass. Being Methodists, we felt like we were infiltrating Vatican City, but the pope didn't seem to notice. We filed in and took our seats in the pews, waiting for the pope's entrance. When he entered, I was expecting a solemn atmosphere worthy of one of the most famous, revered people on the planet. Instead, the crowd cheered, whooped, hollered, whistled, jumped up and down, and waved signs that said things like: "Brazilians love the pope!" It was akin to being at a European soccer match when the players take the field. Those crazy Catholics!

6. I crossed the finish line of a 10K race...from the wrong side.
Many road races in Italy are not timed. I didn't know this when I showed up for my first Italian 10K. Not only are the races untimed, but there's a 2-hour starting window, which means you can show up anytime from, say, 9:00 to 11:00, and start the race. My husband and I showed up closer to 11:00 (this was when we used to sleep in on weekends, before we had kids, obviously). By 11:00, most people had started and finished the race, so there was no pack for us to follow. The trail was supposed to meander through the countryside, but it wasn't well-marked and we got lost. Really lost. The race turned out to be more like 15K by the time we finally straggled across the finish line. From the opposite direction.

7. I didn't know my husband's name until we started planning our wedding.
I knew his first and last name, but there was a bit of confusion about his middle name. When we were first getting to know each other, I asked him what his middle name was. He said: "What do you mean, my middle name?" I didn't realize at the time that Italians don't usually have middle names. So I said: "You know, the second name your parents gave you, after your first name." He said: "Boris." Ouch. (No offense to any blog readers named Boris). We both agreed that it...wasn't the best of names, and had a good laugh.

When it came time to have our wedding invitations printed up, I said that it was traditional to have our full names printed on the invitations. I teased him, saying he should include "Boris." Come to find out, Boris is not my husband's middle name. My husband doesn't even have a middle name. When my in-laws were coming up with names for my husband before he was born, Boris was second on their list. Whew! That was close.

8. I've sunbathed topless.
If you've followed my blog, you'll know that breasts are everywhere, and they're not a big deal. When I got to Italy and realized that topless sunbathing is the norm, I thought maybe I should try it--"When in Rome," and all that. But what if I ran into someone I knew? My students? The parents of my students? A colleague? Nope. I just couldn't do it. But then we went to Lago di Garda, a gorgeous lake hours away from Trieste. When I saw that we were surrounded by sunburned Germans (also topless), I knew I was safe. So I did it. And it wasn't bad! Since then, I do sunbathe topless, but only when I'm faaaaaar from home. With plenty of sunscreen. And no cameras allowed.

Now I'm supposed to tag 8 people, but most everyone I "know" has already done this meme, so I'm tagging two children's writers, Rose and Mindy, and Edna a children's writer/illustrator).

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

We speak English. Sort of.

At home, we often speak in an Italian-English mix. With our Italian relatives and friends, we stick to straight Italian (or dialect, in my husband's case). My kids speak Italian as if they were born and raised there-- in fact, people are often surprised when they discover that my children also speak English.

When we came to the U.S. this summer, I knew my kids would need help with some English words initially, but then I assumed they'd sound like native English speakers in no time. In the past month, surprisingly, they've only asked for help with a few words--usually for things that don't exist in Italy (like Rice Krispy bars and Heelys--those shoes with wheels).


They don't sound like native English speakers. A speech therapist friend told me that it's not their accent, per se; it's the cadence and inflections that give my kids away. I've also noticed a few constructions and wordings that American kids would never use. Here are some examples:

1. My daughters saw a baby rabbit hop into some bushes. An American kid would say something like: "Oh, how cute!" My 5-year-old said: "The bunny--it is so beautiful!"

2. My 8-year-old told us that one of her cousins had a Popsicle, and wanted to know if she could have one, too. When I asked which cousin had the Popsicle, my daughter pointed and answered: "She."

3. In Italian, the words for bride, groom and to marry are similar: sposa, sposo, and sposarsi. We went to see The Little Mermaid play, and in the scene where the hypnotized prince is about to unknowingly marry the evil witch instead of Ariel, my 5-year-old yelled out: "No! Don't bride her!"

I'm torn when I hear my children speaking this way. Things that make adults go "Awww," can make kids go "Huh?" and I don't want my children's classmates to make fun of them when we move back to the U.S. next summer. But I know these linguistic gems will fade within a few months, never to return. My older daughter has already added cool and wha'sup? to her vocabulary, and I've even heard her call her father Daddy a few times, instead of Papa.

When my daughters were toddlers, I recorded some of the cute things they said in a notebook, but I haven't made any new entries in years. I think it's time to pick up my pen once again.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Kiddie Culture Shock

When I was in elementary school, my family lived in Germany on a U.S. Air Force base where my dad was stationed. In those pre-internet days, I had no idea what my peers were up to back in the U.S. We had one television channel on base that mostly played reruns, which meant my friends and I mostly played outside, climbing trees and building forts. Sounds idyllic, right? It was.

Until we moved back to the states.

I'd seen the changing of the guard outside of Buckingham Palace, touched the Berlin Wall, and sailed past Norwegian fjords. But I'd never heard of the new hit TV show Laverne and Shirley, and some blockbuster movie showing coast to coast called Star Wars. Kids at school asked what my favorite bands were and which radio station I listened to. Huh? The only time I ever listened to the radio was when my parents had it on in the car. Needless to say, I wasn't exactly the coolest kid on the block.

I know my own kids will go through some of this culture shock/cluelessness when we move back to the U.S. next summer. I thought I'd take advantage of the time we have here this summer and help them catch up on some good 'ol American culture. Here's how it's going so far:

1. My 8-year-old knows the value of the European coins, so I decided to teach her about American coins. I explained which presidents were on each coin, and how much the coins were worth. The next day I was watching The Today Show, and Willard Scott came on. My daughter asked, "Is that George Washington?"

2. Today we went to a water park called "Water Country USA." I've been working with my 8-year-old this summer on reading in English, and she read the sign, pronouncing USA as OO-zah (the way it would be pronounced if it were an Italian word). I told her it was U.S.A., and asked if she knew what the letters stood for. She had no idea.

My problem is I don't know exactly what my kids know and don't know about America. I'll assume they know what something is--like a bagel or a fire hydrant--only to find out that they don't know. I've definitely got my work cut out for me.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Impressions of America

Once again, I must apologize for not posting in awhile. I think I'll blame it on the American keyboard, which is slightly different from Italian keyboards...just enough to throw me off and cut my typing speed in half.

Here are three random things I love about America that I'd forgotten about:

1. shopping carts: They're gigantic. Almost twice as wide as Italian carts, and longer. If I were pushing one of these bad boys down an Italian supermarket aisle, it'd have to sport one of those neon yellow "wide load" signs on the side. There's enough room in there for...I don't least a week's worth of groceries.

2. grocery baggers: I love these people. I'm trying to work out the logistics of luring one of them into my suitcase for my trip back to Italy.

3. seedless grapes: Call them genetically altered, if you want. But their seedy Italian cousins just don't measure up.

And here are the three coolest things about America, according to my daughters (8 and 5):

1. squirrels: My 8-year-old daughter came racing into the house the first day we were here, screaming, "Come quick! No, come NOW!" I fully expected to see my 5-year-old in a sobbing heap on the driveway, nursing a scraped knee or two. But no. My daughters had sighted five squirrels frolicking in the front yard. Yup. Squirrels. Who knew? Not my daughters.

2. toast: I've never seen a toaster in an Italian home, although I have seen them in stores. In Italian bars, you can get toasted ham and cheese sandwiches (called, conveniently enough, toast). And Italians buy packages of fette biscottate, which are pre-toasted pieces of bread about the size of a playing card. So Italians do eat toast-- they just don't make it.

When I whipped out the toaster this morning, my 8-year-old wanted to toast her own bread. No problem. But instead of waiting for the bread to pop up, she tried to lift the lever after the bread had been in there all of 5 seconds. She didn't know that the bread automatically popped up when it was done. Now I'm thinking I need to come up with some kind of American reintegration program for my kids...

3. sprinklers: Since Italians aren't big on
lawn care, you don't see sprinklers much, if ever. My kids ran through the sprinkler with their cousins, and now my girls want to pack a sprinkler in their suitcase to take home. I told them it'll depend on how much space the grocery bagger takes up...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

We've arrived!

This will be a short post--I wanted to thank everyone for your good wishes/karma/thoughts...they must have worked, because the trip went fairly well.

I have, indeed, re-qualified for living saint status once again. My saint name shall now be Our-Lady-of-Airports-Who-Must-Literally-Run-With-Three-Children-in-Tow-in-Order-to-Make-Her-Connecting-Flight. It's a bit of a mouthful, and might be difficult to engrave on the back of a medallion bearing my likeness, but there you have it.

More details later, once jet lag has worn off...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Volare...Oooooh oh!

Sorry I haven't posted in awhile--we're leaving for the U.S. (yay!) tomorrow, so getting ready has been a little crazy. We leave for Venice this afternoon, and we'll spend the night there and then fly out early Thursday morning.

I'm supposed to be packing right now...shhhhh! Here's my not-very-packed suitcase...But I did want to quickly post here to say that I'll still be blogging about life in Italy while I'm with my family this summer. We haven't been back to the U.S. in almost 3 years (!) so I'm sure I'll also blog about American things that I wasn't expecting, too. And I'll definitely post a photo of me hugging my mom's and/or sister's clothes dryer. Fluffy towels, here I come!

A request: Please send good thoughts/karma/chocolate my way, as I'll be traveling alone with my three kids (does it make sense to say "alone" and "with three kids"? Anyway, you know what I mean...). My husband can't take 2 months off of work (poor thing) so he'll join us next month, then we'll all fly back together in August.

I've done this trip before when my daughters were 2 1/2 and 5 1/ they're 5 and 8, and my son is 18-months--the age where you can't say: "Honey, you have to stay buckled up because we're taking off now," or "No, we can't run up and down the aisles because the food cart is coming." I could say these things, of course...but I doubt my son will hear me over the howling tantrum.

After my last trip, I bumped myself up to sainthood status. I called myself: Our Lady of the Skies-Who-Flies-Alone-With-Two-Kids-One-of-Whom-Doesn't-Sit-Still-for-Longer-Than-Two-Minutes. I'll let you know my new, super-duper saint name once I arrive in the U.S....

Monday, June 11, 2007

Avoiding breasts

Spring has been unseasonably hot here in Trieste, which means the Triestini have been hitting the beach in droves. A few weeks ago, we strolled around Barcola, the beach front in Trieste. There's no sand--just a brick boardwalk, then boulders, then the Adriatic. There is a tiny area (la spiagetta) with a little pebble beach instead of boulders where parents with small children can go. There are also a few areas with circular, concrete platforms with ladders that descend into the sea. But if you're sunbathing anywhere else along the waterfront, you've got to scramble over the boulders, say a short prayer, then throw yourself into the sea. It's quite invigorating. (??)

Anyway, as we were walking along Barcola and the kids were clambering up the slide at one of the playgrounds, I thought: These would make some nice photos for my blog. So I took my camera and got to work.

But there was a problem. Breasts.

Every time I lifted my camera to take a shot, someone's breasts were inevitably in the picture. As you may know, many Italians sunbathe topless. Not just sunbathe, actually. People hang out (pun intended) playing cards, sipping cappuccini in the outdoor bars along the beach, swimming and chatting. Half naked.

So my dilemma was how to capture the rugged beauty of Barcola without having an X-rated post. I first looked to my left. Ahhh, the marina. I aim, then lift my camera up, over the breasts, over people's heads, a bit more....aaaannnnnd click:
There it is, the marina against the hills of Trieste, sans breasts. Then comes the can't take photos of Barcola without including the Castello Miramare that juts out into the sea. So again I aim, leaving the topless women out of the photo, replacing them with LOTS of sky. Click.
The playground where we were is under a canopy of giant pine trees, which is where I was standing when this sailboat glided by. After a few tries, here's a shot where some bathers are actually still wearing their tops. Maybe they'd just arrived, who knows.
Here you can also see part of the brick walk, and the tips of a few boulders (one is right behind that guy's knee..the guy who's probably telling the lady beside him that she should take off her top now.)
Trieste doesn't get many American tourists--they all come as far as Venice and then go home. But when they do come, they're fairly easy to spot on the beach, especially the men. They're the ones with the I-can't-believe-my-good-fortune look on their faces.
When I first came to Trieste, I'll admit it was weird to talk to a topless woman on the beach. No matter what we talked about--the weather, politics or where to find the best deals on new sandals--I couldn't help but repeat to myself: This woman isn't wearing a top. This woman isn't wearing a top. This woman isn't wearing a top... And then I'd miss the name of the store with the great deal on sandals. And of course, you have to spend the whole conversation avoiding looking down. Lots of eye contact.
The other day my daughter received a bathing suit for her birthday, and it was a two-piece. The gift-giver said that she knew we'd be in the U.S. this summer, and she'd heard that little girls in America wear tops with their bathing suits. A few other mothers overheard her and their eyes grew wide. "Really?" they asked. "Why would a little girl wear a top?"
Hmmm. I was stumped. Why, indeed?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Are Italian children geniuses?

I'd always known the time would come when I wouldn't be able to help my kids with their homework--when they start taking courses like high school chemistry, for example. So you can imagine my surprise when my ignorance showed up early--this year, in fact. With my 2nd grader. Ouch.

I do speak Italian, although I certainly don't speak like a native. But some things had me stumped this year. In the page below, my daughter divided up sentences into the parts of speech: subject, predicate and "expansion." Maybe it's me admitting my ignorance on a public forum, but I've never heard the term expansion used as a part of a sentence. So when my daughter asked me to help her with her homework, my response was, "Huh?" My daughter looked at me as if to say: "Didn't you learn anything in second grade?"
Luckily, she had the following page in her notebook, explaining that an expansion is the where, when, how and what of the sentence. "Oh," I said, trying to redeem myself in my daughter's eyes. "The expansion is the object of the sentence." She just rolled those eyes and shook her head. "Expansion it is, then," I said.
Then they started diagramming sentences, and naming the function of each word. In the page below, my daughter has written: Una cantante canta, which means "A singer sings." She labeled the subject and predicate, then went on to note that:
Una= indefinite article, feminine, singular (thank God we just have plain 'ol a or an)
cantante (singer)= common noun, feminine, singular (thank God--again--that all our nouns are androgynous)
canta (sings)= verb (later in the year she goes on to add labels like "third person, present tense")
Come on, people--definite vs. indefinite articles in 2nd grade? I don't know about you, but I never did this kind of thing when I was seven.
But that's okay--I know my parts of speech as well as the next Italian mamma, and was able to help her with this homework assignment.
Then came the nouns. Italian nouns that end with an "o" are masculine, and those that end with an "a" are feminine. Usually. But not always. And those exceptions are the ones that the teacher gives for homework, of course, sending me back to the dictionary time after time. By now, my daughter's wondering if I've ever been to school at all.
Then they started learning about the different verb tenses--the next page shows present and future. Again, simple enough--I know these. What I don't know is this crazy past tense called passato remoto that they use for things that happened a looooong time ago. You see it a lot in stories, and it's totally different from the infinitive form of the verb. Northern Italians don't use it when they speak, so I rarely hear it. I know, I know....I should read more.
And then you've got the subjunctive tense, as in: "If I were really fluent in Italian, I wouldn't have to keep running to the dictionary to help my second-grader with her homework." In that sentence, were is in the subjunctive. The only problem is that Italians use this tense for a gazillion other situations that we don't. For example, if I say "She is at home, " or "I think she is at home," I've used "is" in both cases. Not so in Italian. They use the subjunctive for the second sentence, because it expresses doubt. Just like I'm starting to doubt whether I sound half-way intelligent when I speak Italian, because I frequently forget to use the &$%/£* subjunctive tense.

Now, to cement my ignorance even further, I made the mistake of expressing my surprise when my daughter's teacher taught them to write in cursive at the end of 1st grade. When I was a teacher in the U.S., we introduced cursive in 3rd grade. Yup. 3rd grade.
And writing in pen. When did you first write in pen at school? I seem to think it was middle school, if I remember correctly. Here they use a special pen with the ink on one end, and a white-out type tip on the other end for covering up mistakes. And they use this pen for math. Mercy.
So then I get to thinking, why are Italian bambini learning all of this stuff so early? Are they geniuses? And then it hit me: There are no spelling tests in Italian schools.
That's it!
Italian is a phonetically regular language, so what'cha see is what'cha say. American kids have to slog through all of those word families and rules and phonics exercises so they can pass that spelling test every Friday.
Whew! I felt better already. We're not so slow, after all. Italians may have their tricky verbs, but we've got to figure out the difference between threw and through, pair, pare and pear, and ate and eight.
No wonder American kids don't write in pen.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Wrap it up...I'll take it.

Yesterday was our daughter's 8th birthday, and here's a photo of one of the gifts she received: The beauty of this gift is not what's inside (a puzzle)--it's the wrapping.

What's so great about the wrapping? you're probably thinking. Sure, it's gold and sparkly, and topped with a pink bow--just right for an eight-year-old girl who loves all things sparkly and pink.

But the best thing about this gift is the fact that it was gift-wrapped right in the store. For free. All stores do this, not just the outrageously-priced boutiques. No matter how much you spend, or how many hundreds of people are waiting in line behind you, you can always ask for a pachetto regalo--gift-wrapping. And not only that, if you buy a toy that needs batteries, the clerk will open the box, take out the toy, unscrew the battery compartment door, insert the batteries, close the compartment door, make sure the toy works, put the toy back in the box, and gift-wrap it for you.

When I first came to Italy in 1993 as a Kindergarten teacher at the international school here, the school held a student craft fair in December. The kids had to make something for the fair, and the parents would then come and pay big bucks (lire), which would then be donated to charity. So I had to come up with something that 5-year-olds could assemble that would be useful and look somewhat presentable, in a country without mega-craft stores like Michael's or Ben Franklin.

I know! I thought. We'll make...wrapping paper!

So I had my Kindergarteners dip sponges shaped like candy canes, reindeer and trees into red and green paint and make patterns on large sheets of paper.

When the craft fair had come and gone, I had learned three things:
1. Candy canes never made it to Italy.
2. The reindeer aren't big here. In fact, no one's ever even heard of Rudolph.
3. Italians don't wrap their own gifts.

That last point I learned after the 10th parent picked up his child's wrapping paper creation and said, "Oh! Bellissimo! It's...a painting. Of something."

When I explained it was wrapping paper, they just looked at me like: "Why would I want to wrap anything in this?"

So in the end, you may spend 30 minutes finding a parking place outside of the gift shop, another 10 minutes trying to get someone to assist you (that's for another post) and 15 minutes listening to the clerk chat with the customer in front of you about the weather. get your gifts wrapped for free.

I'll take it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sing, sing a song...

On Saturday, we went to our second-grader's end-of-the-school-year show. The theme this year was songs sung in Triestino, the local dialect. Triestines have a love/hate relationship with their dialect--most of them think Triestino sounds uneducated, yet they find it difficult to speak in Italian with friends and family--the dialect just sounds friendlier, and it's indispensable when you're telling jokes (jokes in Italian just don't have the same delivery).

Triestines don't want their children to speak, read, or write the dialect in school, because it might interfere with their Italian. However, this time the school made an exception.

In this photo, you can see the signs made by the children with the titles of famous Triestine songs and drawings of landmarks--the tram, the lighthouse, the castle, and in the upper left hand corner, a cloud blowing the Bora, Trieste's famous gale-force wind.
(This is off-topic, but the photo below is to show you that the windows is this gym were all closed. And it must have been 1,000 degrees in there. But we wouldn't want a draft to sneak in and cool anyone off, now...would we?)
Okay, back to the dialect and singing...
The children sang at least 10 Triestine songs that everyone in the audience knew--they aren't children's songs, necessarily--some recount a piece of Triestine history, some express an undying love for all things Triestine, and some are just meant to make you laugh.
Here are a few choice lyrics that would never make the American elementary school show circuit:
1. Da un litro de quel bon= Give me another liter of that good wine.
2. E non la me vol più ben, la prega Dio che crepo, inveze stago ben!= She doesn't love me anymore, she prays that I'll die, but I'm feeling fine!
3. E mio marì xe bon, el xe tre volte bon, ma solo la domenica me onzi col baston= My husband is a good man--he only beats me on Sundays.
That last one is an especially lovely sentiment, isn't it? (!)
On the historical end, there were songs that make fun of Austria (more specifically, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire that ruled Trieste for 500+ years), and songs that tell of Istrian cities that used to be part of Italy, and are now Croatian--a touchy subject for Italians who had to leave their Istrian homes after the war.
And interesting to me, there's a famous song about wanting to go to America, no matter type of transportation one might have to resort to--even if it's by skateboard, driving a hearse, or on the back of the horse belonging to your mother-in-law.
Considering there's an ocean between Italy and America, we can gather that whoever wrote that song was either geographically challenged, or really wanted to leave Italy.
Each grade also performed a dance that represented one of the many cultures that has passed through Trieste's ports. For example, Greek sailors used to whip out their mandolins and dance on the docks. The photo below is my daughter's class performing a Hebrew dance--many Jews sought refuge in Trieste during World War II, including Albert Einstein.
By the time the last song was sung, the parents and grandparents were all clapping and grinning and singing along with gusto, and some were even dancing in the aisles. Even though they don't want the dialect to be taught in school, I could tell that hearing their children singing the old familiar songs in Triestino was music to their ears.
That's always been one of the things I've loved about Italians--they'll take any excuse to dance and sing. I remember when I first came to Trieste in 1993, I'd go out with friends (American, Australian, and English), and it was always more fun when our Triestine friends joined us. We'd be in a bar with 100 people, and for whatever reason (wine being the most likely culprit), someone would start singing a Triestine song, and the whole bar would join in. I remember after a particularly raucous round of singing, our Triestine friends asked us to sing a song in English that we all knew.
We were stumped.
All we could come up with were TV show theme songs--The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, and the like.
Oh, well.
So my children will grow up singing about good wine and the story of a man named just can't get more well-rounded than that...

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Is the grass really greener on the other side?

The edge of Trieste touches the Adriatic Sea, stretches inland a bit, then quickly slopes up about 900 feet and becomes the Carso--a protected wildlife area with miles of forests and underground caves. We live in the Carso area, which befuddles our city-dwelling friends. "Why would you want to live so far from the city?" they ask. "You have to drive to the store?? How inconvenient!"

We scoff at this, of course. The city center is a 15 minute drive, and the nearest village with a supermarket is 3 minutes away by car--nanoseconds by American suburban standards. And since we have three kids, we love that they can run out the front door and play outside.

But this post isn't about convenience or commutes, it's about grass (the lawn kind, of course). Here's a photo of the field right next to our building, where our kids often play with their friends:

How nice, you may be thinking. And it does look nice...from here. Now take a gander at a close-up shot of the grass:
Yup. Brown patches, weeds, rocks. Not exactly a carpet of green grass, is it? In fact, the Italian term for "weeds" is erba matta--crazy grass. Like it's still grass, just the crazy kind. Nevertheless, our Italian city-folk friends all ooh and ahh over the bel prato--beautiful field--we have here.
This is a common area for everyone who lives in the building, and there's a groundskeeper who works year-round. Everyone says how bravo he is because he keeps the grass/weeds mowed.
In the U.S., this lawn would never do. The ground would have been plowed, sod laid, seeds sowed and a lawn chemical treatment company called upon--stat.
When we lived in the States, my Italian husband was baffled by the American lawn-care ritual. Everyone would work on their lawn on weekends--mowing, bagging, aerating, fertilizing, and then calling Chem Lawn for an appointment. Neighbors would debate the best kind of grass--should we go with Kentucky Bluegrass or tall fescue?
All of this hustle and bustle produces gorgeous lawns, of course. But one thing puzzled my husband.
"Americans don't walk on their grass," he said one day.
"What?" I answered. "Of course we walk on our grass."
"No, you don't. Not unless you're mowing it."
"But look at them, over there," I said, pointing to some kids running through the sprinkler.
"Kids venture onto the grass, but adults don't."
And he was right. Why is that? Because we don't want to trample the grass, that's why. We have porches and decks and patios and front stoops where we can hang out. Just don't tread on the grass.
Italians might not have carpet-like lawns, but they definitely earn aesthetic points with their flower boxes. They couldn't care less about their grass, but they preen and water and fertilize the flowers that adorn their window sills. In Virgina, I rarely saw a flower box. Here, I rarely see a house or building without one.
Here's a house in the village where my in-laws live. Check out these geraniums:
The flowers even match the laundry on the drying rack out front. Now that's aesthetics for you (as long as you don't focus on the rubble in the yard where a lawn is supposed to be...).
Here's a photo of the flowers on our front balcony:
Our building isn't as interesting as the stone house in the previous picture, but it would be even less interesting without the flowers, don't you think?
I've never had a green thumb, and the thought of keeping up with a yard every weekend is daunting, to say the least. Flower boxes are just my speed. I can pick off the dried-up blooms as I chat with neighbors down below, or water the flowers while my toddler throws his toys off the balcony.
Sure, the grass may be greener on the other side of the Atlantic, but the flowers bloom brighter under the Italian sun.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mamma Mia!

Since we just celebrated Mother's Day (La Festa della Mamma), I thought I'd give you the lowdown on what Italian mammas are really like.

Here's a photo of my mom (on the left) and my mother-in-law (on the right) taken last year when my parents came to visit. My parents and parents-in-law get along really well with each other, in spite of the fact that they don't speak each other's language (or is it because they don't speak the same language...?).

Anyhoo...let's review the stereotypes of the typical Italian mamma:
1. great cook
2. insists everyone eats, even after they're full
3. rules the roost--no one argues with mamma once she's made up her mind
4. loves her children above all else

Well, like many stereotypes, these are all...absolutely true.

There's a saying in Italy that goes like this: La mamma è sempre la mamma, which means: Your mother will always be your mother. Now, an American might interpret that as "Your mother will always love you and be there when you need her."

What it means to an Italian is: Your mother will always be there for you. Literally. Even when you don't need her help. Just look over your shoulder--'cause there she is.

I once saw a documentary in the U.S. on Italian mammas and their mammone--which translates as "mamma's boys." They interviewed couples where the man was Italian and the woman either American or English, and every single girlfriend or wife complained about how their boyfriend's/husband's mother hovered over them like a helicopter. One man lived in the town next to his mother's town, and he'd put his bag of dirty laundry on the bus, the mother would pick it up at the bus stop in her town, wash his clothes, iron them, and then send them back via the bus.

My first reaction to this was: Give me a break! My second (more rational) reaction was: Hmmm...I wonder if I could get my mother-in-law to do this?

In interacting with other moms my own age, I've learned a few golden rules of Italian mamma-hood.

1. Sweating is bad.
My daughter took a gym class a few years ago, where the kids would run around, get a little sweaty, and then the moms would pick them up. When I came to get my daughter, I'd greet her, ask what games they played, and take her home. Big faux pas. Little did I know that I was supposed to go to the locker room, feel her sweaty forehead, make a tsk tsk sound with my tongue and shake my head while I say: "Sei tutto sudata," which means "You're all sweaty." Then I was supposed to change her undershirt, put on a fresh shirt over that, comment again about how sweaty she was, whip out the hair dryer and dry her sweaty bangs. Then, and only then, could I take her home. This rule leads us to the next one:

2. No sweating allowed if there's any sort of breeze or draft whatsoever.
Here's my line of thinking: If it's hot outside and you're sweaty, it's nice when a breeze comes along to cool you off. Here in Italy, however, this leads to instant pneumonia. Italian bambini wear undershirts even in the summer, in case they sweat. Huh? you might say, Wouldn't the fact that they're wearing an extra shirt make them sweat even more? Correct. But the thinking here is that if your child sweats, the first line of pneumonia defense is the undershirt. You see, a breeze would blow against the dry outer shirt, while the undershirt would absorb the sweat. Then, in a practiced 3-second maneuver, your mother would change your undershirt so the process can start all over again.

3. Your child may starve if not fed every few hours.
If my 5-year-old is not eating her pasta, my mother-in-law will pick up the fork and offer to feed her. If a toddler refuses his snack, his mother (or grandmother--same difference) will chase him around the house, plying him with other snack options. When I used to tell my mom I was hungry right before dinner time, she'd say, "You're supposed to be hungry--it's almost dinner time." When I used to pick up my daughter from gym class, at 5:45 and she told me she was hungry, another mother would overhear and offer her a cookie.

I scoffed at these rules--surely I'd never become an Italian mamma. But then I started sending my kids to school in undershirts even when it was warm outside...I mean, what would the teachers think of my undershirt-less children? What if the other mothers caught on that my children were actually sweating at recess time without the pneumonia blocker? And if my kids announce their hunger in public right before dinner time, I've been known to concede the occasional cookie. I'm just doing it for appearance's sake, I'd tell myself. So the other mothers wouldn't call social services on me.

And then my parents came to visit last year. We were outside our apartment with no Italians in sight, when I told my girls to go in and get a sweater. My mom looked at me like I was from another planet. "But Natalie," she said. "It's 75 degrees outside."

Eep. She was right. I'd told my daughters to put on a sweater because a slight breeze was blowing. Argh! Although I'm not a full-fledged Italian mamma, I'm not a 100% American mom anymore, either. I am somewhere in between.

But once my kids are grown, they're doing their own laundry...