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 Brady...you 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...

Friday, May 11, 2007

One strike, and...the kids are home

Here's a photo of my daughter's school (the burnt-orange-colored building). When this photo was taken, students were inside--some walking the halls, some at their desks, some probably throwing the odd spitball or two. Teachers were teaching. And disciplining. And perhaps dodging spitballs.

But not today.

Today there's a scioppero. If you've lived in Italy, you're nodding your head right now saying, "Ah, another scioppero."

Scioppero means strike, and they are regular occurances here. Train workers go on strike. Nurses go on strike. Everyone and his brother goes on strike. And, of course, teachers go on strike.

Strikes are always announced ahead of time, both in the newpapers, on television and websites. So if you want to take the train to Rome on Monday, you check the Italian railway website Monday morning to make sure your train is still running. And if it's not? Well, then, you go to Rome on Tuesday. Pazienza (patience), as the Italians would say.

However, we did not realize that today was a teacher strike day until we got to school with the kids. Apparently, a notice had been posted in the school foyer, which we didn't see yesterday. This is perhaps due to the fact that the notice was tacked to a bulletin board along with 15,000 other notices for various summer programs.

But didn't we hear other parents talking about it? Before school? After school? In the bars? On the street? Italian children don't take school buses, so this means you must drop your kids off and pick them up every day--a chance to see and talk with other parents. So why didn't anyone tell us?

Frankly, because a strike just isn't big news here. It might be mentioned in casual conversation, as in: "I'll call you tomorrow and we'll go for coffee. Oh, wait, I can't go tomorrow--I'll be home with the kids--scioppero."

We weren't the only ones who missed the notice--5 other families showed up, read the notice, shrugged, and went home...kids in tow.

So now I have to cancel my writing plan for this morning...I'm sneaking in this blog post while my son naps and my daughters are having a snack. But at least I work from home. I feel for the parents who have to scramble to make other arrangements because they didn't see the strike coming. Actually, "other arrangements" = "take the kids to the grandparents' house" here in Italy, so I guess all's well that ends well.

What would Italy do if the mammas went on strike?

*edited to add:* One of my daughter's teachers lives nearby, and my daughter just came skipping through the door saying she'd been talking to her teacher who was working in her garden.

What? No picket lines? What kind of strike is this? The kind I'd like to go on, that's what kind.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Prize Pitcher

Yesterday I went into the city with my son to pick out the pitcher for Jeff and Sue, winners of the Get a Load of This contest. I'd promised them one of the ceramic pitchers that are typical here for serving wine--every Triestine has one of these at home. These pitchers usually have something written on them--either the name of the restaurant or a saying in the local dialect. Well, when I went to the shop that sells them, they said they don't make the ones with local sayings anymore. Ack! So the best I could do was to find one that has Trieste written on it, so I hope that's okay with Jeff and Sue. Here are the photos:

I'll get this off in the mail and into the hands of the Italian postal system (I'm not Catholic, but crossing myself nonetheless) by the end of this week. And I forgot to mention the bonus prize...aside from the pitcher, Jeff and Sue will be the proud new owners of about 5 pounds of bubble wrap!
Jeff mentioned in the comments section of the contest post that the blogger world is a small one, and he's right! When he emailed to give me his address, he revealed that he and Sue are the proud parents of Jay Asher, one third of the Disco Mermaids. For those of you who may not have heard of the Disco Mermaids, they're a group of 3 children's authors who started a blog a little over a year ago to chronicle their path to publication. During that time, all three have signed with agents, and Robin and Eve (the other 2 mermaids--both statuesque blondes, but so nice that you can't help but love them!) are on the cusp of having their first sale.
Jay had his first sale last fall, and it was a whopper. His agent sold his novel for teens called Thirteen Reasons Why, which will be released in October of this year. This news was huge in the world of children's lit, because as a first-time author, Jay's advance was, well, huge. Forget that it was huge for a first-time author...it would have been huge for a twentieth-time author. Which only goes to show how much confidence his publisher (Penguin Razorbill) has in this book.
And like Robin and Eve, Jay is down-to-earth and an all-around nice guy. To illustrate this, Jay blogged about his wife's reaction to the news that his book sold, and then she became the photographer for his blog posts showing him telling Robin, Eve, and yes, Jeff and Sue--his parents. So here's the link where you can meet Jeff and Sue: http://discomermaids.blogspot.com/2006/10/when-i-told-my-parents-jay.html when Jay told them about his book sale.
Jay, when you do this again for your next book sale (or movie deal, or Printz Award, etc.) I'll be looking for the Triestine pitcher in the background. ;-)

Sunday, May 06, 2007

And the winner is...

Jeff and Sue! They successfully listed all the functions of the thing-a-ma-bob in the Get a load of this contest!

Most of you were on the right track with clothes dryer, and some of you were so close with the rest of the answers...Tina and Julie almost had it with the dry cleaning idea, except you have to put the clothes in while they're wet, not dry. And I thought Debi in Holland would be the winner when she said you could add water and it becomes a steamer...except you don't actually add the water. But when Jeff and Sue came back and cinched it with their "steam ironing clothes dryer," I knew we had a winner.

This handy-dandy contraption is a:
1. clothes dryer
2. space heater
3. humidifier (as the water from the wet clothes evapoates)
4. ...and although it doesn't actually iron the clothes, it claims to reduce wrinkles (in the clothes, not my skin...although I loved the facial idea, Cyn!)

Thanks for all your creative guesses--Dana's soundproof booth for the Miss Italy pagaent, Cyn's hot air popcorn popper and little people merry-go-round (my kids would LOVE that), Debi's hairdryer idea, Danette's lamp (we could actually use a lamp in that corner...), Robin's raincoat storage, and Jeff and Sue's pasta dryer and balloon inflator.

So what's the prize? I'd intended to go out and buy it yesterday so I could include a photo today, but it rained most of the day, which means parking in the city with three kids in tow isn't exactly easy, so I've postponed the prize purchase until later this week (remember: shops are closed today and tomorrow).

BUT, I did find a link to the kind of prize this will be. Jeff and Sue have won a ceramic pitcher, much like the ones pictured here:


...except Jeff and Sue's pitcher won't be that big...it'll probably be about as tall as my hand. They come in different sizes, and are actually really cheap since they're so common. And just so Jeff and Sue don't think I'm a cheapskate--even though their pitcher will probably cost less than $5, the shipping will be about a gazillion dollars, so that should earn me some points on the generosity scale. ;-)

These pitchers are really common here for wine, and every restaurant has their own design with the name of the restaurant on the pitcher. There's a store that sells them here with sayings written in the local Triestine dialect, and that's the kind I'll be sending Jeff and Sue. We own one of these (which is actually packed away in storage in the states) that says:

Chi beve sto vin, canta come un canarìn

which tranlates as: Whoever drinks this wine, will sing like a canary.

I'll let you know what Jeff and Sue's pitcher says once I actually purchase it--no doubt it'll have a message just as poignant as the canary one. And Jeff and Sue, you can email me at nlorenzi (at) earthlink (dot) net with your mailing address, and I'll put the pitcher at the mercy of the Italian postal system.

Thanks for all your great guesses, everyone!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Happy Communism (I mean, Labor) Day!

Yesterday, May 1, was Labor Day here in Italy. Labor Day in the U.S. has always meant the end of summer, new school supplies, and the last day to wear white shoes without being ticketed by the fashion police.

Here in Italy, however, it's become a mini-celebration of communism. That's right--Italy has a communist party, and they literally paint the town red on May 1. Here's a photo of the nearby village adorned with red flags:
This is also the start of the sagra season. A sagra is an outdoor cook-out open to the public, with music and dancing. Sagras are held as fundraisers by many types of organizations, like local soccer teams, youth groups...and, yes, the communist party.

I took this photo of the knick-knack booth (sorry it's so blurry...). This cracked me up, because at the other sagras, there's often a booth with toys and balloons for sale. New toys and balloons. And the communist booth? The items were all second-hand with no fixed prices...you just gave whatever you wanted to donate.
This may not seem strange to Americans, where garage sales and thrift shops are common. But Italians never have garage sales, and I've never seen a thrift shop anywhere. If Italians have old clothes to donate, they give them to the church. So I guess it's fitting that the communists wouldn't sell anything new, just in case it might be seen as too (gasp!) capitalist.

Here's a shot of the band warming up. I'm not sure what the giant laminated pigs are supposed to represent. Frankly, with my American accent, I was afraid to ask.

Note the tuba on the right...one guy traded off between an electric guitar and a tuba. Another guy manned the accordian, and the drummer brought up the rear. I suppose we now know why communists aren't particularly known for their musical excellence.

Perhaps the communists felt better when they saw someone actually dancing to their music...my son. He loved it.

Although I did tell my husband that if our son started marching around with straight arms and legs, we'd probably have to leave. If not, someone would have surely come to revoke my American passport.
Most Italians scoff at the communists, and don't really take them seriously. An often heard sentiment is: "Sure, it's easy to be a communist in Italy, with their nice cars, fine wine and la bella vita. Why don't they go live in Russia? THEN we'll see how much they like being communist!" Lots of gesticulation is required when saying this. If you want to give it a try, here's what to do:
1. Hold out your hand, palm up.
2. Now bring your fingertips up and touch them to the tip of your thumb.
3. Wag your hand back and forth.
4. The speed of the wagging must increase with the volume of your voice.
Now you're talking!