Post #8: La Vita di un Giacatore di Hockey

Last Wednesday night for dinner, I ate chicken and pasta. For lunch on Thursday, I had planned-leftover chicken and pasta. When I got dressed that evening I had to plan my outfit strategically. Which fabric would be the most resistant to excessive underarm perspiration? I settled on a loose fitting light grey sweater. The color is not ideal for avoiding pit stains, but I hoped the looseness would compensate for this shortcoming. This routine and the nerves that channeled through my veins all day are instant giveaways that hockey season has begun. You would think that after 6 years, I would be immune to standard game-day excitement. But, no. Not at UNH, not in Providence, and as I learned on opening day last week, not in Italy. The problem is that I really want Kevin to play well, but I have absolutely no control in the matter. As a result, I bubble over with anticipation. You would think that I was the one that has to stand in net in front of a huge audience for 60 minutes. Yet, all I have to do is sit back, drink a glass of wine or three, and watch the periods go by.

And so I begin with my long overdue post about hockey. I’m sure you knew it was coming seeing as hockey is the reason we are here in the first place…

It was just over three months ago that our move to Italy became a possibility. My Bionic fiancĂ© was recovering from his second arthroscopic hip surgery from two consecutive Aprils, and was excited to start playing with his completed pair of new hips. His second contract with the Providence Bruins had just expired and I was about to administer final exams to my third year’s worth of students. The one-month countdown to our wedding day was about to commence and we were anxiously awaiting news of where we would be spending our first year of marriage.

The notion of playing in Italy materialized when Kevin’s agent found a shortened demand for goaltenders in the AHL. When Kevin was first informed of this option, he was hesitant in relaying the news to me. We had always discussed the possibility of his playing in Europe eventually, agreeing that it would be a great opportunity to travel. But we had not anticipated that eventually would come so soon. I had just walked into the apartment after a day at work when Kevin told me the news. More overwhelming to me than the information itself was the reality that this would be the first joint decision we would make of this magnitude. I thought it was adorable how strongly Kevin valued my opinion on the matter, but did he honestly expect I would say, “Absolutely not! Living in Italy for eight months sounds like an awful idea!”?  Yes, it was happening sooner than we’d expected, but it was exciting nevertheless. Two weeks before our wedding day, we moved out of our apartment, and Kevin signed a contract to play for Hockey Club Valpellice for the 2010-2011 Season.

Now, here’s a quick geography lesson for you. You will be quizzed on it later. Torre Pellice (where Kevin plays), Luserna (where we live), and four neighboring villages including Bobbio Pellice, Androgna, Rora and Bricherasio collectively make up an area called Val Pellice. France lies less than two hours to the West of this collection of villages, and Switzerland is three hours north on the other side of the Valle D’Aosto mountains. Italy is divided into regions. Valpe, or so the area is affectionately called by the hockey fans, is a part of the Piemont region of Italy. Torre, Luserna, and the rest of the Valpe bunch are an hour south of Torino, this region’s capitol. So, in mathematical terms: Torre Pellice is a subset of Val Pellice which is a subset of the Piemont Region of Italy. Phew, that was tough…

In addition to Valpellice, the Italian A league consists of 8 other teams: Cortina, Brunico, Fassa, Renon, Bolzano, Pontaiba, Asiago, and Alleghe. Unlike Valpe, which is situated in the Northwest portion of the country, these teams are clustered in the Northeast, closer neighbors to Austria and Germany than to France and Switzerland. Suppose you constructed a scatterplot of longitude vs. latitude, with each point representing the location of a team’s home ice. You would see 8 points clustered together on the right of the chart and one point standing alone on the left, an obvious outlier. That point would be the Valpe Bulldog’s rink in Torre Pellice.

This mathematical analogy brings to light a seemingly inconvenient reality for Kevin and his teammates… lots of travel. They will be roadtripping 6-10 hours both ways for each of the 20 away games in their schedule. The other teams will only have to travel that far when they play away against Valpellice. That amounts to only 2-3 long trips over course of their regular seasons.

But, as there usually is if you look hard enough, there is a bright side to every circumstance. In this case, being far away from the rest of the teams in the league puts us closer to more of what Italy has to offer. Within a two hour radius we have Aosta, Milan, Genoa, and Sestriere. A little farther and we’re in Florence, Venice, or Le Cinque Terre. And let’s not forget that a train from Torino can bring us to Rome or Paris in about 6 hours. The other teams are slightly closer to Venice, but we are closer to just about everything else.

So, how did an Irish American hockey player from South Boston end up in Italy? Well, as with all European leagues, every team is allowed a certain number of imports on their roster. In Italy, this number is 6. Americans or Canadians with Italian citizenship count as half an import. So, in total, 9 players on the Valpe team make up the allotted 6 imports. The rest of the roster is composed of Italian players that live in the surrounding area. These players are between the ages of 17 and 30, and for most of them, hockey is something they do on the side of finishing up high school, college, or working another full time job.

For each import, the team provides an apartment, car, and utilities. They are primarily able to do this through sponsorships. Val Pellice has many sponsors for which Kevin and his teammates are walking advertisements, literally. For example, since they are sponsored by a local clothing company, they participated in a fashion show during “Valpe Day”, a dinner celebration of the hockey programs in the area. There, they strutted down a large runway in different outfits provided by the company and paused and pivoted at the end of the T-Shaped stage like professional models. They also have specific outfits contributed by this company that they are required to wear to every game.

Another one of the team’s many sponsors is Ford, which is why, as you can guess, we all drive Fords. Here is a picture of our car…

Just kidding! Our car doesn’t stand out THAT much. It actually stands out more!

I’m still getting used to being stared at while I’m driving. Needless to say, gone are the days where I am in a parking lot and can’t find my car, or I try accidentally and unsuccessfully to get into a car that looks identical to mine.

Having discussed the logistics of the hockey in Italy, it’s time to describe the fan base of the Valpe bulldogs. In two words, it’s large and enthusiastic. The residents of the Val Pellice villages LOVE hockey! As I’ve said before, I talk to pretty much everyone that will listen to me while I butcher their language. In most of these conversations, the said listener deduces that I am here with a hockey player because they either see my car or they figure that this is the only explanation for an American plopping herself in the middle of nowhere Italy for eight months. Whenever I confirm their suspicions, they throw their arms up in delight and rave about the importance of hockey in the town. It has been a part of the culture for a long time, and the fans are very proud of the team. Having such a dedicated group of fans makes the games a lot of fun for the players. They want to win for the people in the stands as much as they want to win for themselves. I can only hope that their enthusiasm is unfaltering in winning streaks and losing streaks alike. As I tell Kevin jokingly, “No pressure, but my reputation in this town rides upon your playing well". Afterall, I don’t want to be stuck driving around a Valpe car if the fans are particularly displeased with the team’s performance.

With only one game down, it’s tough to predict how the Valpellice team will do this season. One thing I do know is that the team is made up of a really good group of guys, and I have no doubt that they will battle every night for the win. Also, the team’s board members are a generous collection of men who, with their families, seem to thoroughly enjoy being a part of the hockey club. And, much to my liking, the wives and girlfriends that are accompanying Kevin’s teammates have proven to be a fun and friendly crew. I’ve already established in previous posts that simply living in Italy will make for an enjoyable eight months. But, it is nice to know that, considering these assets, it should be a lot of fun from the hockey perspective as well.

Kevin in net in a pre-season match-up!


Post #7: Le Cinque Terre

I realized I was in a good spot when my second best option for a weekend getaway was a trip to Le Cinque Terre. When Kevin found out that he would have two consecutive days off, we were overwhelmed with how we wanted to spend them. We threw around several ideas: Nice & Monte Carlo, the Valle D’Aosta mountains, Lake Como, Genoa, and the Cinque Terre. With winter approaching, we decided we should capitalize on the opportunity to hike in the Alps before an onslaught of snow prohibits us from doing so. Unfortunately, weather for the weekend was calling for rain and so we “settled” on the supposedly sunnier alternative of Le Cinque Terre. I cannot begin to tell you how happy we were with our decision!

Le Cinque Terre, or The Five Lands, is a part of the Italian Riviera consisting of five villages situated along the coastline. Tourists flock to this destination to savor the views along the 6 hour walk from between the towns. On Friday night, we booked a room at the last affordable and available hotel in nearby La Spezia. On Saturday morning, we programmed our Tom Tom for Monterrosso, the northernmost town, and headed on our way. (For anyone planning to travel outside of the country, I highly recommend purchasing and downloading relevant maps onto your GPS device. After just one trip, ours have already earned their $58 worth.)

Although we were aware that the sights would be gorgeous along the water, we did not anticipate that the sights along the drive would be so stunning. For three and a half hours, we drove south through rich green farmlands, past impressive mountain terrain and alongside old Italian villages in the foreground of extravagant blue ocean. After we parked our car in the Monterosso lot, we agreed that if we got back in the car and drove home at that moment, the trip would have been worth it.

Monterosso was an adorable town from which we embarked on the first leg of the hike. It was a challenging climb up the mountain and along narrow paths to get to Vernazza, but it was truly incredibly to see such steep, jagged mountains bursting abruptly from the foaming turquoise water. After three weeks in Luserna, I have grown accustomed to seeing the peaks of surrounding mountains in the distance. This was an entirely different experience as I have never seen them starting at sea level. It was absolutely breathtaking.

After a stop for gelato and a picnic lunch in Vernazza, we headed on to Corneglia. Tour books and travel websites claim that Corneglia is the least impressive of the five villages, but I cannot say that any of the towns are deserving of that distinction. Each had its own qualities. Although Corneglia had fewer shops and restaurants, I appreciated it for its being the only one of the five villages that is not at sea level. Instead, it rests above its neighbors, perched on the side of a cliff. And, of the various legs of the hike, the one stretching from Vernazza to Corneglia was my favorite. It had a slightly wider path bordered by exotic vegetation and it boasted an ocean view for the majority of its length.

After three plus hours of walking, and most of that on an uphill climb, Kevin and I hopped on a train in Corneglia to head back to our car. We drove back down the mountain and into La Spezia. Given the impromptu booking, we did not expect anything special from our hotel. But, it was perfect! The hotel manager was extremely friendly, and like most people we met on our weekend getaway, he spoke English very well. He pulled out a map of the town and drew us a path from the hotel to the waterfront to see the views and then to his favorite restaurant for dinner. We followed his directions, adding only a quick stop for appertivos before ending the night with dinner.

Had it not been for its convenient location and for the fact that the hotels in Levanto and the Cinque Terre were booked solid, we never would have visited La Spezia. I think this would have been an unfortunate overlook on our part. Coming from such a rural part of Italy, it was a pleasure to take in a city scene. The main section of the downtown was closed off to cars. The brick-lined streets were covered with immaculately dressed Italians on their way out for dinner and drinks. The piazzas were filled with shops and high-end retail boutiques. It was traditional Italian architecture with a modernized feel. Picture one of the larger villas in Luserna and turn it into a Lacoste store. That was La Spezia. 

After a solid night’s twelve hour sleep and a fulfilling complimentary breakfast at the hotel, we ventured back to Le Cinque Terre to see the last two remaining villages. This time, we parked (for free!) just outside of Riomaggiore. We walked 2 miles down into town, admiring the ocean views along the way. The path connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola is the shortest and least difficult of the bunch. It is considered the Via Dell’Amore, or Path of Love. Many couples took this translation to heart, stopping along the way for an elaborate make out session and casual groping. But, then again, that is not unusual even for the less romantic stops around Italy. I think maybe PDA has a different connotation here…

When we arrived in Manarola, gray clouds appeared overhead and rainshowers herded tourists underneath balconies and bridges. What did Kevin and I do before finding our way to cover? No, we did not make out in the middle of the street under the rain. Our life is not a romantic comedy featuring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughy. We only take the “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” mantra so far. Instead of huddling underneath overhangs, we got gelato. Delicious and satisfying gelato.

When it started to seem like the rain was the product of more than just a passing storm, we decided to head back to Riomaggiore. The crazy thing is, we walked under one bridge in that direction, and came out on the other side to sunshine. I must not have been wearing my good Samaritan pants. If I was, I would have run back to the other side and informed all of the sullen, poncho-wearing tourists of the news. Instead, I relished in retracing our steps, this time without the company of a crowd. We took a different trail back up to the main road, and returned to our car completely fulfilled by our weekend adventure.

After proofreading the previous paragraphs, I’ve concluded that there is not much I have told you about Le Cinque Terre that you can’t read in another relevant tourism guide. But I can tell you that words really do not do a justice in describing the beauty of this Italian attraction. Hopefully these pictures will better portray the experience…

Looking out from Monterosso

Near Manarola (We are up much higher than it looks!)

Cute little couple on the Via Dell'Amore

All along the Via Dell'Amore were locks of all shapes and sizes left from previous visitors.

Tourists waiting for the rain to pass in Manarola

On our way back to Riomaggiore looking at the cloud over Manarola

Again, I was much higher than it looks. This shot cost me a little bit of fingernail. 

Another shot of some of the locks...

A bridge on the walk from Monterosso to Vernazza

Looking at Verazza from Monterosso path

About to head down into Vernazza

A Vernazza Street

Leaving Vernazza

Approaching Corneglia

Looking back on some of the cliffs

La Spezia Waterfront (If you look closely I accidentally caught a couple making out in the fashion I described in this post! It's such a common sight, it was inevitable that in my 100+ shots from the weekend I would capture it!)

First shot of the weekend with Monterosso in the background!


Post #6: Is there an Italian Version of Hooked on Phonics?

As an educator, I am trained to use a variety of different methods to assess student progress. Summative or formative assessments in the form of games, quizzes, tests, problems of the week, and more!  What is it you are trying to measure? You name it and I’ll design a way to assess it.

The truth is, I find comfort in the process of teaching, assessing, modifying my instruction based on those results, and repeating the cycle. Without specific checkpoints in a long-term learning goal, it’s easy to overlook that you are making any progress. Measuring progress consistently enables you to see how far you’ve come. It motivates you to reach the next benchmark because you are seeing results along the way. This has been my philosophy in learning Italian. I know that I will not wake up tomorrow morning and be fluent in the language. However, I would like to wake up tomorrow and know that I’m at least doing better than yesterday. How can I tell? Well, I can put my college dollars to good use, and assess my skills.

Although I have not written myself multiple choice tests to assess my improvement in learning Italian, I have relied on less formal approaches to evaluate my skills. For example, I fold the “Verbs to Know” page in my Italian notebook in half separating the English words from their Italian translations. I go down the list, counting how many words I translate correctly until I get to one I don’t know. If that number increases on a daily basis, I consider it improvement. After all, I have been adding 5 verbs a day for almost 17 days.

Another assessment strategy I’ve utilized is a game I call “How many verbal exchanges does it take for a native to notice that I’m not Italian?” It’s kind of like a wrestling match between two brothers where the end of the scuffle comes with one in chokehold calling “uncle”. Here, the question is, how long can I engage in conversation with an Italian before I have no idea what he or she is saying? As of now, if I initiate the conversation, I can make it to at least two, a greeting and a response from the recipient of my greeting. If the other person is the initiator, we have a touch and go situation. I’m only prepared to respond to a handful of opening lines. In either case, my personal best is 12 exchanges. I was sitting in a sun spot on a bench outside of my apartment, graciously using two bars of someone’s unpassword-protected internet access. A friendly woman from another apartment approached me. Our record-breaking conversation translated into something like this:

Neighbor: Good morning.
Me: Good morning.
Neighbor: It’s a beautiful day. Are you doing work?
Me: I write my family.
Neighbor: I always see you walking around town. (More here). Do you live here?
Me: Yes. I dwell here eight months.
Neighbor: Where are you from?
Me:  America. Boston.
Neighbor: (Something about the hockey team… sounded like a question).
Me: My husband. Val Pellice. The goalie.
Neighbor: Oh! Very good! The goalie! How do you like it here?
Me: This is my first time in Italy. I like Luserna. Luserna is a nice town, very beautiful.
Neighbor: (????)

And that was where I lost her and had to call “uncle”, or “zio” in Italian. But it wasn’t a bad run!

Although my daily self-assessments indicate that my Italian is improving, the speaking component to the language that is a definite “Needs Improvement” on any grading rubric. Specifically, there are two different letter patterns that are my pronunciation pitfalls. First, there are the vowels. Except in the names of Hawaiian Islands, I haven’t seen many words with three consecutive vowels. Here, they are everywhere! Take, Ciao, for example. How a four-letter word can be such a mouthful astounds me! The other day, I was studying the present indicative conjugations for the verb volere, which means “to want”. I was sitting at my favorite coffee bar, and agonizing over the pronunciation of the second person conjugation, vuoi. “Voo-oh-ee”, I mumbled to myself. Frustrated by my inability to connect the three sounds fluidly, I asked my coffee shop friend for help.  I had my notebook open to the “Important Verbs” page, I pointed to the word in question, and I asked her how to pronounce it. She recited it, beautifully of course. I repeated it, sounding more like a monkey than I care to admit.

As if the triplet vowels don’t present enough problems for me in the language, I have to deal with the twin consonants. In Italian, a double consonant requires special pronunciation. Spaghetti, for instance, is “spah-get-tee”. Although I notice the discrepancy between the English and Italian pronunciations of similar words when I hear them, I cannot replicate them myself. You’re probably thinking that I shouldn’t beat myself up about this inadequacy with the language. What does it matter if my pronunciation isn’t perfect, right? Wrong! Consider my seemingly harmless excursion to the stationary store where I was hoping to purchase a few ballpoint pens…

Well, in Italian, singular feminine nouns usually end in “a”. To make them plural, you change the “a” to an “e”. Sorella means sister, sorelle means sisters. Capito? So, there I was, in the store, in search of a couple writing utensils. I finally spotted a cup of pens on the wall behind the register. Alright, I thought to myself, so I have to ask the woman behind the counter for pens. I consulted my dictionary and pen is penna. So, pens would be penne. Easy! But, this is where it gets interesting. Pene, singular n, is the Italian word for a part of the male anatomy. My inexperience as an Italian speaker left me at the counter treading a thin line between asking the associate for “pens” and asking her for “penis”! To avoid a mortifying misinterpretation, I simply pointed at the cup on the wall.

Despite my frustration with pronunciation, I continue working hard every day to learn the language. Dictionary in hand, I read everything from the backs of cereal boxes to highway billboards. Since newspaper writing is too difficult for me, I bought two children’s books at a used book sale on Saturday. (I am happily working through a novel for 7-year olds about a boy and his gym shoes.) I continue to study new verb conjugations and I am constantly adding new words to my notebook. 

To practice listening comprehension, I watch Italian television with subtitles. Listening to the language and seeing the words as they are spoken has proven tremendously helpful. MTV even airs old episodes of Jersey Shore in English with Italian subtitles. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually learning something from Snooki and her pals. In addition to watching the local television stations, I embrace every opportunity to talk to my neighbors. They are working just as hard as I am to help me reach my goal. Every day they tell me about something new, always speaking slowly and clearly, stopping to check that I am following with a quick “Capito?” before continuing. Yesterday, a woman from across the street spent ten minutes with me talking about a wedding she had just gone to for her friend’s daughter. The bride was 45 and everyone was so happy that she finally found herself a husband. The woman talked about how she’s been married for 42 years. And she said that she ate too much at the wedding and was going to have to sleep it off.

In the end, I suppose that the penne-pene dilemma was a one-of-a-kind situation. Most of the time, small discrepancies in my pronunciation will not make for perverse misinterpretation nor will they inhibit my communication with Italian speakers. I will stick to my studying, and hope for more improvement. As indicated by my frequently administered self-assessments, so far so good.


Post #5: A Letter to Network Television Producers

To Whom it May Concern:

I am writing to pitch an idea for a new reality show. Here’s the idea: Put a newlywed couple in a small village in a foreign country. Over a period of 11 days, deprive the couple of different combinations of at least five of the following: oven, phone, internet, car, cash, and hot water. In place of these novelties, give each of the candidates an assortment of physical ailments ranging from poison ivy and lacebite to diarrhea. In addition, ensure that surrounding stores are closed for random and lengthy periods of time throughout the day. In the end, if neither of the two lovebirds has booked a flight home (with a credit card of course, seeing as foreign currency is one of the withheld amenities), they win an impressive sum of money. 

To give the concept a Survivor meets Amazing Race spin, consider featuring multiple couples in a single season and create a winner-takes-all competition setting. Design daily elimination challenges like “Manually Light the Fickle Burner on the Gas Stovetop without Losing the Hairs on your Fingers”. There will be a teary-eyed reflection at the end of each episode where winning and losing couples alike discuss their experience and proclaim their love for one another despite the outcome of the show.Of course, the experience won’t be about the money for any of the contestants. They will simply appreciate that their relationships were strengthened when they faced new challenges together, an opportunity worth more than any monetary prize. In the season finale, the credits will roll while the camera pans out from the winning couple sharing a kiss.

Please note that the length of this trial is an important component to the show’s design because, for the first 6.75 days, living without the listed amenities makes for adventure, not stress in a relationship. The couple will feel empowered by their optimism while living without customary goods and services. The true test lies in the final 4.25 days, during which the initial excitement wears off and the couple realizes that just because they can live without these things doesn’t mean that it’s easy to live without them. Drama inevitably follows from a week of taking cold showers and eating Nutella Sandwiches.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing back from you. Please contact my agent with your offers.


p.s. I would appreciate if you could arrange for the show to be aired on BBC as it is the only channel I get that is not in Italian.


Post #4: Una Settimana in Luserna San Giovanni

We arrived in Luserna on a Saturday night. On Sundays, the town practically shuts down. Few of the many restaurants and markets are open for business. The ones that are operate under a modified schedule, open for only a few hours. Considering our empty fridge and equally empty stomachs, this was a concerning discovery for our first morning here. Luckily, one small cafe was open. We stumbled upon it accidentally on our first of many strolls through our new neighborhood.  It was hidden by a building that was hidden by another building on side street that could have easily been mistaken as a driveway had it not been for a small faded sign that indicated otherwise. I delivered my well-rehearsed line “Io no parlo Italiano” to the waitress. She pointed inside the restaurant then outside while simultaneously asking “Interno o fuori?”  We opted for fuori, and took our seats at a table outside in the sun.

Despite our language barriers, we ordered our first Italian coffees and sat there like  sponges, absorbing every detail of the world around us. Two dogs trotted along the L-shaped patio, stopping by each customer for a quick back rub before moving along to the next. When new people arrived they were always greeted by name. Marveling at the friendly exchanges between the people at their tables, I sipped my espresso and processed an unfamiliar combination of emotions. I became overwhelmed with the idea that, yes, we were in Italy.  And, yes, these people were my new neighbors. It was with these realizations that I became eager to learn every detail of my new surroundings. That was exactly what I set out to do on my first week in Italy…

Given its small size, familiarizing myself with the geography of Luserna San Giovanni was not a challenging endeavor. It is organized in my mind as having two sections, Downtown Luserna and Luserna Alta. We live in the latter. From Torre Pellice, you first arrive at the downtown portion. Here you find countless shops, newsstands, playgrounds, and markets scattered throughout a square mile of area. To get to Luserna Alta from there, you must pass through a rotary (rotaries are everywhere!), cross over the Torre Pellice River, and continue up a steep winding road. Alta means “tall” in Italian, and, very fittingly, Luserna Alta is situated at the top of this tall hill.  To get to our apartment, we take a left around the hilltop rotary and follow the narrow cobblestone path to the church. From there, a right and two lefts down residential streets bring us home.

With its collection of small family-owned shops, Luserna Alta is similar to its downtown counterpart. However, it is undeniably smaller, quieter, and older. (This is not to say that downtown Luserna is a modern-day bustling metropolis, but comparatively speaking…) The church and its beautiful bell tower are exquisitely preserved artifacts of the 1600s. The church serves as the epicenter to the surrounding piazzas. Walking around town feels like walking through a picture in a world history textbook.

The majority of Luserna’s residents are a lot like its buildings… old. There are little elderly people everywhere, sweeping imaginary particles from the streets in front of their homes, riding mopeds to the market, and congregating on benches to keep watch on the town. It’s safe to say that between being American and being under the age of 85, Kevin and I do not blend in.

In an attempt to learn more about Luserna, I introduced myself to nearly everyone I met: the town butcher, market owners, coffee shop employees, bank tellers, bartenders, elderly neighbors, and restaurant managers. I met a Giuseppe, Immelda, Bruna, Daniella, Livio, Fabrizzio, Maria, Ginetta, Mariana, Gigi, and more Paolos and Marcos than there are Johns and Matthews back in the states. Being such a small town, tourism is not a component of the culture here and, as such, few of the people we’ve met speak any English. Nevertheless, everyone is incredibly friendly and welcoming and they seem utterly delighted to see us when we stop in for a cup of coffee or groceries. I am grateful that Gabriela, Andrea, and the little girl in the pink backpack were just the first of many wonderful people we would meet here.

As expected, the culture is very different than it is back home. The most interesting adjustment has been the daily routine. Breakfast, colazione, is not an important meal for most Italians. An IHOP would go out of business in a day seeing as most people opt for an espresso, and maybe a croissant or salami sandwich in the morning. Lunch, pranzo, is usually a three course meal consisting of pasta, beef, salad, and, of course, wine. These meals are always followed with una caffe. Except for the restaurants that serve lunch, all other shops close down from about 12:30 to 3:00 on a daily basis. They reopen for a few hours in the afternoon, and then the crowds head to cocktail hour and finish up their day with a late dinner, la cena.

Like Americans, the Italians love their coffee. Caffe bars can be found on nearly every corner of every street (think Dunkin Donuts on Route 1 near Boston). Despite the prevalence of coffee houses, I have yet to see a drive-thru coffee stop or even a travel mug for a regular cup-o-joe. I suppose it’s because drinking coffee, like everything else here, is a social event. What fun is it to drink a coffee on the go when you can drink it in the company of friends? Since there is no such thing as being in a hurry in Italy, what’s a ten minute chat with some pals over a caffeinated beverage? Most people stand at the bar to drink their orders, chatting with someone they inevitably know that happens to be in the same spot doing the same thing. The standard coffee options are caffe, caffe con latte, or cappuccino, each costing about 1 Euro. The espresso options are served in little doll-sized teacups and I find it endlessly amusing to watch big (at least by Italian standards), burly loggers stop in to sip from such dainty and delicate dishware. Pinkies up!

In brief, an adequate description of the day-to-day routine here is: talk, eat, drink, and repeat. Work is occasionally added into the mix. As evidenced by the prevalence of Centurians in my neighborhood, this seems like to healthy way of life. I can’t imagine that the extended life expectancy of Luserna’s residents is attributable to diet seeing as they eat pasta like carbo-loading ultramarathoners. Maybe it’s the wine. Or, more likely, it’s their relaxed approach to life. The mathematician in me wonders, what’s the correlation between stress level and longevity? I will get back to you on that one, but I’m guessing there’s a strong association.

In addition to studying the culture of Luserna, I dedicated a large portion of my time this week to learning Italian. I always carried my Italian-English Dictionary and a composition notebook to which I added new words and phrases throughout the day. This notebook, offers much amusement to my self-appointed Italian mentor, an older woman who owns a coffee bar in downtown Luserna. I met her my second day here when I stopped in for gelato. She seemed to find my lack of Italian endearing and since then, has taken it upon herself to spend time talking with me on each subsequent visit. She doesn’t speak English, but she says that listening to her language is the best way to learn it. So, she talks and I listen. Sure enough, I understand more every day.

It wasn’t until my third visit with my cappuccino-making Italian teacher that she caught a glimpse of my notebook. She had just introduced me to her son-in-law, and I flipped to its “Family Members” page to find the Italian translation for the relationship. (It’s genero for future reference).  She asked to see the book, and, slightly embarrassed, I handed it over. She was impressed as she flipped through the pages, reading several words aloud to her fellow baristas and customers. They complimented me enthusiastically on my efforts, but all I could imagine was a red sign above my head flashing the Italian word for “geek”. Every day since then, she’s asked if there is anything new in my notebook. And, I always reply “Tutti i giorni, a poco a poco”.

To celebrate the closing of our first week in Italy, Kevin and I headed to the pizza place at the Luserna Alta rotary for dinner. It was our second time there in three day’s time and the owner greeted us warmly. We surveyed the menu and placed our order confidently in Italian. Just like on our previous visit, our dinner came with two beers. This time, however, we were given a brand of beer taken from the back fridge instead of the one by the register. There was a sparkle in the owner’s eye as he handed us the cans and spoke excitedly (in Italian, of course) about the Birra. It took some effort on his part before we were able to understand what he was trying to say. Mainly, these were the good beers, reserved for his favorite customers. Once Kevin and I made this translation, we were delighted. Not only had we made a successful translation, but we were also deemed worthy of special beer! We were gleaming with pride as we paid for our pizza and wished our friends good night.

On our way home, pizza box in hand, we reflected on how far we’d come in a week’s time. It seemed like years had passed since our first colazione at the tucked-away trattoria. In only seven days, we learned our way around Luserna, and were receiving customized greetings “Ciao, Sarah” and “Buon Giorno, Kevin” from various shopkeepers and residents of Luserna. Once back at the apartment, we gushed that we were becoming a part of the community. We poured ourselves a glass of vino bianco (1 Euro for a whole bottle!), and happily recounted our tales of progress.

It was then, at the height of our overconfidence, that we opened our box of pizza to find that what we thought we had ordered and what we had actually ordered were two different things entirely. With one glimpse at our dinner, we were brought back to reality. Yes, we have come a long way. But, we clearly have a long way to go.

From our experiences this week up to and including our pizza topping miscommunication, I’ve come up with the following words of wisdom: Just when you think you are getting the hang of it, you find out you ordered sausage and french fries on your pizza. Buon Appetito!

Cobblestone Street Luserna Alta
The Hill Leading up to Luserna Alta
Walking Along Torre Pellice River in Luserna
Another River Shot
Little Huts by the River
Old Walkway by Our House
Since the streets are so narrow, you have to use mirrors while driving to look out for oncoming cars.
The Chiesa in Luserna
The Church's Clock Tower
One of the many Gelato spots we've visited!


Post #3: Nostro Appartamento

Five days ago, we arrived in Torre Pellice, our homebase for the next eight months. Well, technically we are living in Luserna, but given the proximity of the two towns, they are one in the same. I’m sitting at a round Ikea table on one of the four Ikea chairs that occupy our dining/living room. The apartment is actually much larger than we’d anticipated. As an avid HGTV viewer, I’ve watched a lot of House Hunters International and was fully prepared to live in a 400 square foot studio apartment. Far exceeding my expectation, our apartment consists of a sizeable foyer that leads to three separate interior spaces, a dining/living room, bedroom, and bathroom. Extending from rear corner of the living room is a small kitchen that contains a proportionately small refrigerator and oven. A balcony stretches along the length of the apartment, accessible via gorgeous French doors in the living room and bedroom.

For me, the two most important factors in a home are character and natural light. This apartment has both. Character is provided by the general architecture of the building and such details as hand-painted canvases adorning the walls. (They are signed by the artist and dated back to 1932!) Thanks to the balcony doors, the apartment is flooded with natural light. Done and done. As for Kevin, the extra firm bed and the non-claw footed tub made the apartment a quick sell. (Flashback to Apartment Search 2009 where most of the rental properties on the market were ruled out because they had claw foot tubs. No explanation and no compromises.)

With all of our primary priorities met by this Luserna apartment, Kevin and I are patiently coping with its few faults.* First of all, our oven does not work. As a ‘consequence’, we have to eat out for dinner until it is replaced. Three course meals consisting of authentic Italian pasta dishes are such an inconvenience. Also, we do not have a dryer. (Then again, no one in this town seems to have a dryer.) I know we will survive, but hanging socks and underwear to dry seems tedious to say the least. In the winter, stepping into a pair of frozen pants doesn’t seem like a pleasant way to start my mornings. Then there’s the shower situation. We have a clean tub bereft of the dreaded claw feet. We even have hot water! The problem lies with the detachable showerhead that rests above the water nozzles. Since this is not an atypical set-up, there must be a method of showering with soap in one hand and the showerhead in the other. Given the lack of a shower curtain rod, it’s apparently done all while controlling the direction of the spray to insure the bathroom is not flooded. Impressive. Don’t get me wrong; I am excited to embrace the culture here. I will gladly substitute Nutella for Peanut Butter and live without salad dressing on my green leafy vegetables. Nevertheless, I would prefer to shower in the manner with which I am accustomed. That is, with a shower curtain and a stationary showerhead. 

Overall, the three details mentioned previously are small sacrifices for living here. With one glance at the lush green mountains that serve as a backdrop for our balcony view, the absence of a few customary conveniences is easily forgotten. We are living in Italy, and my surroundings are everything I could have imagined. It’s surreal to wake up in the morning and to see quaint Italian homes (villas?) out my window. I love walking out of the apartment and onto cobblestone streets that weave past buildings constructed in the 1600s. It is, in a word, beautiful. Or, more appropriately, bello. And it is, for the next 8 months, our home away from home.

*Please note that in mentioning of these faults, I am NOT complaining. I am incredibly grateful to be here, and have nothing to complain about except for maybe the incessant poison ivy that’s ravaged my legs since last Tuesday. (Mowing the lawn before I left wasn’t such a good idea after all.) Again, these are not complaints, but tidbits of information relevant in painting a picture of our world, a world away from your own.

Entry Look Straight
Entry Look Right
Living/Dining Room From Entry
Living/Dining Room View
Living/Dining Room from Balcony

Kitchen from Living/Dining Room
Kitchen Look Left
Kitchen Look Straight
Kitchen View
Bathroom From Entry
Bedroom From Entry
Bedroom View
Bedroom From Balcony
Balcony from Dining/Living Room
Balcony from Bedroom

Outside Vegetable Garden
Outside Hydrangea Bushes

Post #2: Benvenuto a Italia

During our trip to Italy, Kevin and I kept waiting for something to go wrong. It’s not that we are pessimistic people. We aren’t. But I think our past experiences of relocating have made a negative impression on us. It’s always been impossibly hot or rainy, and the truck is always a size too small. I haven’t successfully moved out without seriously contemplating leaving behind all of my possessions for the first willing taker. Since relocating within New England has been such a hassle, we prepared for even more complications for our international move.

When newscasters predicted Hurricane Earl would make landfall at the time we were scheduled to fly out of Logan, we weren’t concerned. If it was inevitable that something would go wrong, we might as well get it over with at the start of our trip. We headed the airport ready for the wrath of the God of Relocation. Charge us a fortune for our extra luggage, I dared as we proceeded to check our bags. But all 5 bags plus hockey sticks were loaded without a hitch. Our overweight bags were even generously overlooked! Alright, so hit us with an obnoxiously long delay, I thought. But the plane took off as scheduled! We were even randomly seated next to a girl I knew from Portsmouth who just so happens to be living in Torino this year. I made a connection in Italy before even leaving the runway in Boston!

In the following stages of our trip, we continued to anticipate complications. But the trip was all smooth take-offs, easy layovers, and gentle landings. In the Milan airport, there wasn’t so much as a single piece of lost luggage. A little girl even gave me 50 cents in Euros so that I could use a baggage cart! Her mother must have seen me look at the cart dispenser and walk away dismayed that, unlike the one in Boston, it did not take cash or credit. Just as I had walked back to Kevin to deliver the news that he would be carrying 300 pounds of clothes and equipment out of the airport, I felt a tap on my side. I turned to see a little girl dressed in all pink from her socks to her backpack. She smiled and handed me a gold coin before scurrying back to her mother. If first impressions meant anything, Italy was looking really good!

Upon exiting baggage claim, we were greeted enthusiastically by a little boy and his father. The little boy was holding a paper with colorful hand-drawn bubble letters spelling Regan. Although the father did not speak English, his son knew a little from school.  On the walk out of the airport, with a broken hodge podge of Italian and Spanish, I asked enough questions to learn the basics about Gabriela. Quanti anni hai? He is 12. Hai una sorella o un fratello? He has a sister who is 7. Hai un cane o un gatto? They have a yellow Labrador retriever named Attos who is also 12.  

We were certainly lucky to have been met by such a friendly and helpful duo. They had driven 2 hours from Torre Pellice just to pick us up! I smiled to myself as I watched the little boy proudly carrying Kevin’s hockey sticks., but I couldn’t silence the voice in my head that whispered, “too good to be true”. Then we saw the small hatchback that would be transporting five bags, six hockey sticks, plus the four of us. Kevin and I looked at each other knowingly. It had been too easy. This was going to be the problem. We made it to Milan, but we would not make it to Torre Pellice. Not in that car. Luckily, I am my father’s daughter. Tetris packing is in my genes. And Kevin had spent two moves as his apprentice. Within twenty minutes, everything was in the car. The father took the wheel. The little boy sat up front with our computer case on his lap. Kevin and I got in the back with a bag across our laps. When the car pulled away from the airport and towards Torre Pellice, I thought that perhaps there is no such thing as “too good to be true”.


Post #1: Wherever so you go...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nikon D60 with appropriate accessories such as carrying case, tripod, and extra memory cards; check. Brand new Italian-English Dictionary with a crisp, ready-to-be-tested binding; check. Recipe book and a stack of blank cards awaiting inscription of Italian cuisine; check. A GPS navigation device with newly uploaded maps of central Europe; check. Four seasons worth of clothing (including a pair of skinny jeans!), footwear, and cosmetics; check. All of the above packed comfortably into two bags; hmmm... So I'm not quite ready yet, but I'm getting there. 

Here I am two days away from stateside departure, and I still cannot believe that I am headed to Italy. The idea of living in Europe and absorbing another culture has always been intriguing, but it's not exactly in my biological make-up to put my career on hold and move to a foreign country because I am simply intrigued. Suppose everyone I have ever met collectively authored a book "Sarah Christine in Three Words". Now suppose, as the title implies, the book contained all combinations of words contributed by each one of these friends, family members, students, colleagues, and acquaintances to describe me.  I can bet you all of my savings (I'm a teacher... don't get too excited) that nowhere in that book would you find the word ‘spontaneous’.  I'm not saying that 'organized' and 'meticulous' (two words that would probably appear in this book) are negative attributes. Had moving to Italy never become a viable option, I would have continued living a perfectly wonderful life. A perfectly wonderful, meticulously organized life. But, moving to Italy did become an option, and I do believe that it is healthy to step outside of your comfort zone when possible. Since meeting Kevin, I have become increasingly accustomed to doing just that. 

Over the course of our relationship, despite my resistance to all-things unplanned, I found comfort and happiness in Kevin's "don't worry about what you can't control" philosophy. For six years, I've taken baby steps towards spontaneity. To celebrate our recent marriage, doesn't a giant leap in that direction seem appropriate? So, here it goes. We are moving to Italy for hockey season #7 to see where it takes us. We will be spontaneous. But I guess we can't plan to be spontaneous. That would be contradictory, wouldn't it? We will have to be spontaneously spontaneous! (You can see why I don't teach English).

Perhaps the primary objective of this introductory blog, regardless of any seemingly irrelevant digressions, is to reflect on what I hope to gain from this experience. "What will you do?" people ask with an unidentifiable emotion behind their emphasis on the word "do". Are they implying that I will be bored, or are they excited about the possibilities? Whatever the case, my response to their inquiry always involves listing off my various job titles. Wine connoisseur, gelato specialist, backpacker extraordinaire, mobster... The truth is, I don't exactly know what I hope to become over the next eight months. I have no plans or preconceptions. I can only hope that if I leave myself open to learning new things, I won't be disappointed. As Kevin and I embark on the first adventure of our married lives, I think we can use a few words by Confucius as our mantra: "Wherever so you go, go with all your heart."