Friday, March 30, 2007

Yup...I live here

I visited Rome years ago and stood across the street from the 2,000-year-old Colosseum. On the road that passes right in front of the Colosseum, Italian drivers whizzed by, talking on their cell phones and completely ignoring the imposing landmark right outside their windows. I remember thinking: Don't you people know what you're missing? You've got a world-famous piece of history right in front of you, and it doesn't even merit a glance?

But a part of me understood. You move to a new place, you go and see all the sights, and then never set foot in a single tourist-attraction until people come from out of town to visit.

That's how it was when I first came to live in Trieste in 1993. I was hired to teach at the international school here, along with two other friends/colleagues from Virginia--Dana and Cathy. We fell in love with Trieste at first sight, and couldn't believe we were actually living here instead of just visiting. But inevitably, regular day-to-day tasks like work and grocery shopping diluted our awe of Trieste, and we'd find ourselves forgetting--forgetting to look at the castle that jutted out into the gulf from the shoreline. Forgetting that the buildings in the piazza where we'd just bought a gelato were 200 years old. And forgetting to take in the ruins of a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater as we hurried to meet friends at a pizzeria.

But every once in awhile we'd stop. We'd look at the castle, the piazza, the amphitheater. And we'd grin and say: Yup...we live here.

I had one of these moments this week after taking my daughter to the indoor pool for her swimming lesson. While she splashed around with her teacher, I was supposed to be perched on a chair outside the pool in front of ceiling-to-floor windows watching her blow bubbles, kick, and doggy-paddle her way to the side of the pool. But I wasn't perched anywhere; I was chasing my 15-month-old son around the waiting area, trying (unsuccessfully) to keep toys out of his mouth belonging to other toddlers with runny noses, steer him away from the trash can (a toddler magnet) and ply him with crackers so he would stop grabbing the other kids' cookies. And all the while, I knew my little mermaid would later say: But Mommy, you weren't watching me!

As soon as the lesson was over, I whisked my daughter into the locker room and helped her change and dry her hair. All this took no more than 10 minutes, but it seemed like 10 hours-- my son screamed the whole time at the injustice of being buckled up in his stroller when it would have been so much more fun to explore the fascinating nooks and crannies of the women's locker room.

So we finally got out to the car, and I discovered one of my son's shoes was missing. Back inside, past the reception desk, down the hair-drying hall, and into the steamy locker room again, all of us dressed in heavy coats. I finally found the shoe, and we schlepped back to the car again.

By this time, I was a weensy bit stressed.

I got the kids buckled in, put the folded-up stroller into the back, and was about to walk around to the driver's side and get in the car.

That's when I noticed it.

Here's the view I had in front of me of the old buildings along the waterfront as seen through the masts of a hundred sailboats in the marina. And to think I almost missed this.

Yup. I live here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Buon Appetito, Fido...

Most pet owners consider their dog or cat a member of the family. Nowhere is that more true than in Italy...especially when it comes to dogs.

People bring their dogs almost everywhere--in bars, stores, and restaurants--much to the delight of my children, who rush to pet any dog within a 100-meter radius. If I stop for a coffee at a bar and another coffee-drinker is accompanied by his pooch, I can pretty much count on carrying my coffee cup around with me as I try and prevent my 15-month-old from throwing himself on top of the dog.

But to really bring the Italians-love-their-dogs point home, I had to take this photo in the supermarket today. It's a big (probably a 10-pounder) bag of pasta...for dogs.

My in-laws have a pasta-eating dog, and he eats as well as we do (and when we're at my mother-in-law's, we eat well. Too well).

So pass the pesto sauce, Fido. And Buon Appetito!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Caution: Bimbo on Board

Here's a "Bimbo on Board" sticker in the rear window of a car. Oodles of Italian cars have these, because there are millions of bimbos in Italy.
In Italian, bimbo (pronounced "BEEM-bo) is short for bambino, meaning child, in this case.
Nonetheless, I still refuse to put this sticker on our car, even though we have three bimbi. I'd hate for an English-speaking tourist to see me driving by and assume that I'm the bimbo on board...

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Let's play "Find the Street Sign"

I'll be the first to admit I have absolutely no sense of direction. Luckily, I live in an age where this flaw does not affect my survival. Had I lived in the caveman days, I would have been the one who wandered off to gather berries, lost my way back to the cave, and been devoured by a saber tooth tiger.

Although there are no saber tooth tigers in Italy (that I know of), this is not a friendly country for the directionally-challenged, like myself. To illustrate my dilemma, we're now going to play "Find the Street Sign." Take a look at this photo:

This is a pedestrian area of the old city center. There's a sign in the foreground that says: area pedonale, and a picture of a pedestrian--no cars allowed here. Now...can you spot the street sign?


Look closer. Squint if you have to.

If you haven't spotted it yet, look at the building on the right with the big, dark stain up the side. See the lighter-colored, rectangular sign on the building right smack dab in the middle of the stain? That's it! Congratulazioni--you've found the street sign.

Now let's play "Read the Street Sign."

Okay--that wasn't fair. No one could read that sign. And that's my point.

The street signs in Trieste are attached to buildings, and not every intersection even has signs. They're usually the same color as the building (you lucked out with the stain this time--not all buildings have that), and the street names are carved into the stone--not very practical, and impossible to read while driving at night.

How do Italians deal with this? First of all, the majority of them live in the same city in which they were born, so they already know their way around. Second, most city dwellers take the bus.

So what are the street sign ramifications for someone like me?

Disastrous. Especially when I'm driving. If I do spot an elusive street sign, reading it isn't always an option because I'm usually simultaneously trying to swerve around cars parked in turn lanes and drivers who cut in front of me without warning.

On second thought, maybe my zero sense of direction does cut down on my chances of least in Italy.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Buona Festa del Papà!

Happy Father's Day!

My girls made these boxes for my husband today...the smaller one was painted by my 4-year-old, who was more into the process than the product...and ended up with more paint on her body than the box. The larger box was painted by my 7-year-old, who found it difficult to focus on the fact that Easter doesn't factor into Father's Day (that's a fluffy yellow chick glued to the top).

You may be wondering why I'm posting about Father's Day in's rainy, windy and cold here (a bad
laundry day)--definitely not time to break out the grills for a summer barbeque. It's also Monday, when all (or most) of the Italian papàs go to work.

So why is today Father's Day in Italy? Being a Catholic country, Italy recognizes a different saint for almost every day of the year. And March 19 is the day they honor San Guiseppe, a.k.a. Saint Joseph--Jesus' legal father-here-on-earth.

It makes sense to have Father's Day on Saint Joseph's day--I get the connection. But why they picked March 19 to honor St. Joseph, I'm not sure...obviously no one thought about making Father's Day convenient, did they? Spain and Portugal also celebrate Father's Day on March 19, but the vast majority of the world's nations celebrate it in the
summer. Some exceptions are Australia and New Zealand (September), and a few freezing cold countries who celebrate it in winter (including Russia who celebrates in February...not many barbeques going on there, I'd bet.)

I like having Father's Day on a Sunday--it's more relaxed, most people don't work, and you have time to really celebrate. And I especially love celebrating it in summer--grilling out, shorts and t-shirts, etc.

Maybe I'll write to the Pope and ask if he couldn't officially trade St. Joseph's day with some other saint's day in summer. For example, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux's day is August 20. Ever heard of him? Neither have I. Apparently, he's the patron saint of bees, beekeepers, candlemakers and wax-melters. I doubt he'd mind trading places with St. Joseph. And I don't think the bees could care less.

Or maybe there's a patron saint of barbeques? I'll have to look into that...

But in the meantime, Buona Festa del Papà!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Speaking of high speeds...

In my last post, I wrote about the Bora reaching speeds of 93 miles (140 km) per hour. If you want to know what that feels like, all you have to do is venture out onto the Italian autostrada.

Here's a photo of our speedometer (I'm not driving, by the way) when we were out on the highway. We had our American car shipped over here, so the big numbers are miles per hour, and the little ones are kilometers per hour. And yes, we're going 85 miles per hour. And we're not speeding.

The speed limit on Italian highways is 130 kilometers per hour, and our measly 85 mph translates to about 136 km per hour. Believe me when I say we were one of the slow pokes traveling in the right-hand lane.

One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about Italian drivers is the tailgaters (99% of the Italian driving population). If you were to travel in the left lane going a mere 85 mph, the tailgating ritual would go something like this:

1. Glance in your rearview mirror and see a speck of a car at least a few kilometers away.
2. Wait 3 seconds.
3. Check your rearview mirror again. The speck is now full-sized, barreling toward you and closing in.
4. The driver flashes his lights at you.
5. You now have 1.359 seconds to get over into the right lane.
6. What? Other cars are in the right lane and you can't get over? Shame on you.
7. The driver now moves to within a centimeter of your rear bumper.
8. Gun the engine and race ahead of the other cars in the right lane.
9. Swerve into the right lane. Cutting off another car is completely acceptable.
10. Breathe easy as the tailgater bullets past you going at least 200 km per hour.
11. Pray that he gets a ticket, so you can honk your horn and laugh as he's pulled over by the polizia.

Number 11 on the list is actually a very American's my attitude, in fact. I hate tailgaters. But Italians are nowhere near as offended by them as we are. If my (Italian) husband is driving and someone rides on his tail, he doesn't even make a break in our conversation. He just keeps talking and moves over. No one gives anyone the finger or shakes a fist. The tailgater even looks bored as he whizzes by. Now if you don't move over when you have space in the right lane...that's another story involving lots of gesticulating.

So if you find yourself navigating an Italian highway, stay to the right, keep both hands on the wheel, and remember to breathe. And a few Hail Mary's wouldn't hurt, either.

Monday, March 12, 2007

When the Bora blows...

Trieste is a windy city--sort of like the Chicago of Italy. It's famous for La Bora...a gale-force wind that swoops down from the north and pummels the city, especially in winter. It's been known to gust up to speeds of 150 km/hour (93 miles/hour).

The old timers here say the Bora was much stronger 40 years ago, as you can see in this photo here:

Many street corners still have chains for people to hang on to. The real threat isn't being carried away alà Dorothy and Toto--it's the flying debris. After the Bora blows into town, there's always a story in the paper about someone getting hit with a flying roadsign or a flowerbox that was ripped from a windowsill.

The Bora usually lasts about three days--much longer than that, and you start to go crazy. Especially when you have three kids who are stuck inside, begging you to let them go out to play.

There is one good thing about the Bora--it usually clears out the smog and clouds, leaving behind a sparkling blue sky.

My personal Bora beef has to do with laundry. If you read my previous post on
laundry, you know all about the drying racks on my balcony. Here's what happens when the Bora and my laundry collide:
Luckily, these are dark clothes, so the dirt doesn't show...too much. At least, not enough to wash everything again. With the white load...that's another story. Especially if it's rained overnight.

So why don't I just bring the laundry inside? Stay tuned, because I'll need a whole separate post to answer that question...

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Buona Festa della Donna!

Today is La Festa della Donna, or Woman's Day here in Italy. It always falls on March 8, and it's basically a day in which women get together and go to happy hour and hang out with their girlfriends. All except for those women who are ready to crawl into bed by 8:30 because they have a teething 14-month-old whose molars keep waking him up in the middle of the night. Nope--those women are at home. As usual. But I digress...

Women are given these yellow, puffy flowers called mimosas--men give them to the women in their lives, and women give them to each other. They were even handing some out to all the women at the supermarket today, and here are mine:

I know--they look a bit like weeds, don't they? I mean, the thought is nice, and everything, but who thought these flowers would make a good Woman's Day symbol? What about tulips? Or roses? Or jewelry? Or...I! A nice pair of Italian leather shoes. Now that's my idea of celebrating Woman's Day.

Although my preschooler did come home today and present me with this:

Cute, huh? I guess a finger-painting of a pair of shoes wouldn't have the same effect, would it?
For all you females out there, if you don't get flowers (or colorful, puffy weeds) today, go ahead and treat yourself to a pair of Italian shoes. Or whatever floats your boat. Especially if your name is Donna (which means "woman" in Italian). Or Regina (which means "queen.") The Donnas and Reginas of the world definitely qualify for two pairs of shoes.
Happy Woman's Day!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More weird Italian baby food

Those of you who read my previous post on weird Italian baby food know that Italian bambini dine on salmon, horse and rabbit. But it's not like I hadn't heard of people eating these things--just not babies.

Then today I went grocery shopping and saw something I'd never seen before. Are you ready? Are you sure? it is:

That's right, folks...ostrich. Now, I don't know about you, but I have never heard of anyone eating ostrich, never mind babies. At least not in the U.S. and not in Italy. I bought this pack just to take the photo, but I'm definitely not feeding ostrich to my son.

Even if it does taste like chicken.

Monday, March 05, 2007

One thing to love about the Metric System...

After over 6 cumulative years here in Italy, I still can't get used to the Metric System. I know--it supposedly makes more sense than the U.S. system of measurement, blah, blah, blah. Base-10, and all that. But I'm just not a metric person.

There are a few conversions I've memorized, like I know to set my oven to 177 degrees Celcius to bake a cake. And 55 miles per hour is about 90 kilometers per hour (also equivalent to "standing still" on an Italian highway, but that's for another post).

And then there are the numbers I have a vague idea about...I know that 3 degrees means it's cold outside, 25 degrees is pleasant, and 38 degrees is blisteringly hot. But I still don't know exactly what those temperatures are without converting them...I should have studied those signs outside of U.S. banks more. You know, the ones that showed the time, the temperature in Faherenheit, and the temperature in Celcius.

Anyway, there is ONE good thing about the Metric System: Kilograms. Have you ever weighed yourself on a metric scale? Here's what my bathroom scale looks like with me on it:
I mean...63.3 kilograms, people! How can I feel bad about that extra winter weight when my scale says 63.3? I mean, it's not even up to the 3-digits, like it would be on a U.S. scale! I feel like I'm weighing myself on the moon, or in some low-gravity zone.

Granted, those of you reading this who were born, raised and weighed with the Metric System may have no idea what I'm talking about. But for those of you in the U.S., the last time we saw 63 on a scale was back in elementary school, right? The trick here is, of course, that you must NEVER convert your kilos to pounds. That ruins all the fun and self-love.

So if you're trying to lose some weight before bathing suit season starts, here's my advice: Go out and get yourself a metric bathroom scale. Weigh yourself. Now go eat another chocolate chip cookie.

Nah, make it two chocolate chip cookies.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

It's all about the glove...

Produce shopping in Italy is not for the fainthearted. It is not for the feebleminded. And it is definitely not for the uninformed. If you're going to be buying fruit and veggies in Italy, here's what you need to know:

1. The glove--Before you even think about touching an apricot or a green bean, you need to back away from the produce bins. Slowly. (We don't want anyone getting hurt). Now pick up a plastic glove (available next to the plastic bags). Put the glove on. Then, and only then, can you deign to touch the produce.

I learned this lesson the hard way with my newly-arrived-in-Italy friends, Dana and Cathy. We hadn't been in the country for more than a week when we decided to go for some produce reinforcements. As soon as our fingertips brushed the apple skins, the owner of the little grocery shop started yelling at us. Of course, we had no idea what he was saying at the time, but we did get the message when he pointed his stubby finger at the box of plastic gloves. I later came to find out that this man was particulary grumpy, so his reaction wasn't typical of 99.7% of Italian grocers. Okay, back to the topic at hand...

2. Read the sign--Near each produce bin is a sign with the name of the fruit or veggie, plus a number. Remember this number. Without it, you will go home produce-less.

3. Weigh it--Once you've bagged your produce, you'll put it on a scale, like the one in the photo above. Then you have to find the number on the grid (you do remember the number, right?). Press the number, and a price tag pops out that you'll stick on your bag. (Note: You can always print out two price tags and stick one on your toddler's hand--always good for at least 48 seconds of entertainment.)
You're now ready to check out.
Now, I'm sure you can see the folly with this system:
First, I don't know about you, but with a teething toddler who keeps waking up in the middle of the night, I can't remember more than two numbers at a time. So I have to keep returning to the scale every couple of bags so I don't forget the numbers.
Second, there's inevitably a bag that gets buried under my other groceries and I forget to weigh it. This isn't a big deal in a small store, as they'll usually just weigh it for you. But in the larger stores, it usually means I have to choose between the bag of pricetag-less tomatoes, or spending an extra half hour to go back and weigh them, and then standing in line all over again.
And since the extra price tag I stuck to the back of my toddler's hand is only worth 48 entertainment seconds, I'm sure you can guess which option I always choose...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

It's a sign...

Earlier this week I went to the little grocery store in the village. It was closed, and I found this sign on the door (in Italian and Slovenian): Closed for vacation from February 26-March 5, 2007.

The small shops in the villages and the city are almost always run by families. There are no managers or assistant managers, and no name tags that read: "Mario: Sales Associate of the Month." Smaller grocery stores are usually closed all day Sunday, and Monday and Wednesday afternoons, so those are the family's days off. And at least once per year (usually in August), they literally close up shop and take off somewhere.

I'll have to scout out my favorite sign of all and take a picture for you--the "I'll be back in five minutes" sign. You see this sign in a shop window during business hours, and it means the shop owner has gone for a coffee. They literally lock the door, put out the sign, and walk to the nearest bar for a cappuccino.

So what if you, the customer, find the "back-in-five-minutes" sign right when you really need to buy something exactly at that moment? Well, you'll just have to wait. Or, better yet, go get a coffee and come back in five minutes...