Saturday, May 14, 2011

More Musings on Life in Italy

Whenever someone learns we live in Italy, I can pretty much anticipate their reaction:

Oh, wow . . . Italy! You are sooooo lucky! 

Well, I do spend my days sunbathing and sipping red wine while sitting on the balcony of my spacious villa, atop the highest hill in the land. My personal chef prepares my food and each meal ends with tiramisu. And my Italian language skills rock. These past 14 months have been like one continuous vacation for me. I have no responsibilities, my husband quit his job, and we enjoy our time basking in the delight of our perfectly behaved children.

Nice view, eh?
Um, not really. 
I’ve posted previously (twice) about living in Italy; if you are so inclined you can read those entries here:
Now for the reality check: Living in Italy is not exotic. at. all. It’s remarkably mundane and normal . . . except without Starbucks, Target, and Really Good Chinese Food.
On Where We Live
We live on a military base north of Naples. It’s like any little United States town, but with an overabundance of apartment buildings. The hospital, commissary, exchange, elementary and high schools, child care, and just about any other “service” you can think of is right on base. There’s also a lot of green space, tennis courts, soccer fields, and a playground about every 20 feet (give or take) . . . very pedestrian and stroller friendly. Our current home is about two-thirds the size of our house in the states. While most of the apartments look the same from the outside (more or less) once you visit a few you quickly realize the builders designed all of them just a wee bit different. Why? No idea, except the following adage may explain it . . .
The Southern Italian Way:
Whatever would make the least sense possible in any other part of the world.
On Learning Italian
For someone who has lived in Italy for over a year, my Italian pretty much sucks. Before we moved I was all about learning to speak the language. I had books, CDs, and a ginormous Italian–English dictionary. I did manage to learn the basics: 
  • hello/goodbye, please/thank you, excuse me, and other basic pleasantries; 
  • counting, colors, days of the week, months; 
  • saying where we live, my husband is here for work, and talking about how many kids I have and their names/genders/ages; 
  • how to order in a cafe/restaurant and how to ask for directions (although I can’t always understand the response, so I’m not convinced this is useful); and 
  • (Most Importantly) how to say “I speak a little Italian, but not very well. Do you speak English? I’m sorry; I don’t understand.” 
I should note that I can only pull off even this much Italian if the person I’m speaking with enunciates very clearly and slowly, a hard to find combo in your average Italian speaker. In general I can ask questions in Italian, and if someone asks me a question in English, I can answer in Italian; however, back-and-forth conversation makes me woozy. But here’s the kicker: I only very occasionally need it at all. Usually I attempt a pathetic mumbling and then the person takes pity on me and either starts speaking English or just gestures with their hands until we are “communicating” Italian style.

Traveling in Italy without knowing Italian (or any part of Europe without knowing the primary language of the country) is pretty much a non-issue; major hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, etc. *always* have someone who speaks decent English or can at least muddle through a conversation with you.
Don’t get me wrong. I don't expect the whole world to talk to me in English . . . what I am saying is that most everyone does know some English and they are happy to use it. (Likely so they do not have to hear me mangle their native tongue.) Still, we enjoy making a meager effort. Before our trip to France, hubby brushed up on his French, and even used it a bit. In advance of our trip to Barcelona, I got a copy of a Spanish phrase book so I could at least say a little more than what I’ve picked up from Dora, Diego, and Handy Manny.
Me and the Senior Agents in Rome.
On Day-to-Day Living
My husband is a naval officer. Normally this involves him going out to sea for days, weeks, or months at a time, but this is our “break” from that. This is “shore duty” for us, meaning he’s not attached to a ship and doesn’t deploy. But he does work . . . Monday through Friday and some weekends. During the week hubby typically leaves around 6:30 a.m. and returns at 5:30 or 6:30 p.m. (Although he gets all the American holidays AND the Italian holidays off . . . a nice little perk.) But, alas, even here someone has to earn money and pay the bills. (Better him than me.) There’s this little gaggle of folks called NATO. You may have heard of them. They appreciate when he shows up to help out.
As far as me and the Agents . . . the Senior Agents go to an American preschool one exit down from the base; E goes every day and J goes twice a week. They have all their lessons in English, but spend 30–60 minutes on Italian (through songs, dancing, playtime) each day. My littlest Agent and I enjoy our quiet time on Tuesdays and Thursdays (the two days a week both girls attend school together). Mostly we do all the same stay-at-home Mommy stuff that we did before. Sometimes on Saturdays we’ll take a quick day trip, but otherwise we do usual weekend stuff: sleep in, eat waffles, get things done around the house, play outside, and maybe hit the mall and get lunch.
On the Biggest Misconception
Before I moved here, I people told me over and over again how fond the Italian people are of little ones. Italians love children! And they do . . . sort of. They love to look at them, make funny faces at them, and sweet talk them in Italian. Oh, they enjoy squeezing cheeks and proclaiming “Bella!” or “Bello!” but in reality most ascribe to the “children should be seen and not heard” mentality. (Don’t get me going.)
And in spite of the hype, Italy is not all that kid-friendly (in my opinion). For starters, apparently Italians don’t pee. Or take newly potty-learning children out in public. Or change diapers. If you can find a bathroom within five kilometers that doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you AND has a toilet seat AND toilet paper AND you didn’t have to pay to use it, consider yourself lucky. And forget finding a changing table . . . unless of course you shop at one of the “new” American-style malls or IKEA. (Yes; we have IKEA. We’re not savages, for goodness sakes.)
It is also entertaining to watch Italians gawk at the double stroller . . . especially when I only have one kid in it. They also seem to dig when I dress the girls alike. Our party of five is quite the novelty. (Contrary to what I previously believed, Italians tend to have just one child. That’s a lot of Catholics using birth control.)
On Eating
Italian Food = Yummy; no denying that. However, going out for Italian food, not quite so simple.

Eating out at restaurants does not work out so well for us, primarily because Italians, like most Europeans, tend to eat dinner very late (8:00-ish) and take forever to complete a meal. I don’t know about you, but going out to eat with three kids (five and under) at 7:30–8:00 in the evening and having the meal last 2 or 3 hours doesn’t not spell F-U-N in my book.
But . . . take-out, brick-oven margherita pizza rocks. (Even though we are always the first ones there when they open for dinner and need to wait for them to reinvent fire.)
The whole gang in Siena.
On Travel Opportunities
By far, the BEST part of being stationed in Europe is the chance to travel and see so many great things that we’ve only read about or seen pictures of. (I plan to document our travels to date with a separate post, including photos, coming soon. Really. It’s on my to do list, I swear.) So far, we have traveled inside Italy to Rome, Caserta, Bologna, Pompeii, Siena, Florence, and Pisa. Outside of Italy we have visited Germany and France, and we’ll be heading to Spain next month. London is on our “must see” list for later this year. Bonus: Getting to visit all these places with relatively cheap flights (and no jet lag) or simply by driving.
I could write a lot more, and perhaps I will someday soon, but this is already my longest blog post ever so I’ll stop here. Sorry to have ruined your fantasy. Please forgive me. As I commented to a fellow blogger recently: southern Italy . . . not so glamourous. But we do have excellent pizza. And the mafia.

6 comments :

  1. I have to beg to differ on the "Italians don't pee" comment. They most certainly do, I have seen plenty of evidence in plenty of public bathrooms. I always keep a travel pack of clorox wipes in my purse for the occasion when my DD has to pee as hovering her over the toilet poses many problems including not adding to the mess. Sometimes, I wish I had packed my rain boots too. ::Shudder::

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  2. What a great post! I appreciate your candid glimpse of life as an American in Italy. I'd still love to visit!

    I studied Italian in college and have forgotten almost all of it without ever getting to even have a conversation with an Italian in Italy :-(

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  3. Kaylene, I'm pretty sure I will forget every word of Italian I know the moment I get on a plane out of here. Except perhaps "Basta!" We use that one a lot.

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  4. I loved this! I visited my penpal in Italy for 3 weeks a couple of decades back and experienced a lot of this (I thought I'd starve with those late dinners). It was interesting to read your perspective as a mom with young kids.
    http://voices.yahoo.com/italy-vs-america-cultural-differences-541203.html (I wrote up some differences I observed there if interested)

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