14 May 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.

09 May 2011

5 Things Moms Cannot Do

Yes, yes . . . Mother’s Day 2011 has passed. I know all those other Really Good Bloggers Who Are On Top Of Things posted something yesterday, or even last week in anticipation of Mother’s Day (show offs). 
But this is not like those other blogs, and I spent all day yesterday with a Julia-shaped tail, so give me a break.
Certain things simply cannot be done once you become a Mommy. At least for this Mommy . . . so if you manage to pull this off I’d love to hear about it.
1. Mommies cannot go into the bathroom alone. Because everyone needs company when they pee. The more the merrier is what I always say. And forget taking an undisturbed shower lasting more than three minutes and involving both soap and shampoo. Clearly my kids think I smell fine as is
2. Mommies cannot go off duty. Even when I try really hard to secure some “off duty” time, it inevitably ends in an epic fail. Yesterday I woke up at 5:30 and snuck into the living room to enjoy some early morning peace and coffee and writing time. By 5:32 my three-year-old joined me. Sigh.
3. Mommies cannot forget anything, including but not limited to shoe sizes for everyone, medicine dosages in milliliters for each child, birthdays and anniversaries of all extended family members, where every Lego in the whole @#$% house currently resides, and which Wiggle is which color.
4. Mommies cannot suffer from selective night deafness. (The baby was up how many times? I didn’t hear thing!) In fact, it’s the exact opposite: lights go down and Mom Radar is expected to be on and ready. 
5. Mommies cannot leave the house for any outing without first packing enough to justify a personal sherpa and accounting for contingency plans A through G. And, of course, making sure everyone has used the potty (probably as a group . . . see #1).
I think I actually had more than five, but since I also can’t do anything without being interrupted every few seconds, including concentrate long enough to compose more items for this list, I’ll stop here.
A belated Happy Mommy Day to all!
Baby E
Baby J
A at 4 weeks

02 May 2011

Food, Yummy Food

My little Moose turned six months yesterday. 
Agent A . . . lookin good.
For about two weeks now, he’s been nursing nonstop and showing even more interest than usual in our mealtimes. I decided to try some solid food. I’m going with a different method than I did with my girls: baby-led weaning. This should be fun.
Baby-led weaning is simply letting Baby feed himself/herself when ready and able. Instead of starting with cereals and purees, you start with real food and let him/her decide what and how much to eat.
It’s not about making your own baby food, which, while admirable, is something I did not succeed with for my first two babies. (With Agent E, I started with that awful, pasty rice cereal just like I was “supposed” to. Agent J’s first food was applesauce.) It’s more about skipping that phase altogether. I assume babies ate prior to the founding of Gerber and the advent of Cuisinart. They must have gone directly from breastfeeding to eating “real food,” so how did they do it? 
I found some great resources/links from KellyMom on starting solids, including reasons to delay solids until at least six months, signs of readiness, and suggested first foods. Agent A has been exclusively breastfed until now—no bottles, no formula—and I will continue to nurse him for the remainder of his first year and beyond. Breast milk will continue to be his primary source of nutrition for quite some time.
Anyway . . . we put half a banana on his tray and let him have at it. 

What am I supposed to do with this?
Toward the end of our little “experiment” I mushed it up a bit to see if he showed more interest. (Not really.)

Ooh . . . squishy.
And so it begins. Next up: Carrots.