Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Grass Is Always Greener On the Other Side of the Ocean - L'erba e' sempre piu' Verde Dall'Altra Parte dell'Oceano

Visiting Italy one month per year and living on the other side of the ocean for the rest of the year is odd, fun and quite challenging. You feel a bit like Babar, the elephant in one of Tronk’s stories. He goes to the city, learns things such as how to wear a hat and how to eat with fork and knife but continues to miss his native country and the values he shares with his people. Then he goes to visit them in the jungle and he cannot help telling them how to dress and eat. It’s like being on a seesaw. You are going up and down, depending on the country where you are and on the person who is sitting on the opposite side.

You were in Italy? Oh my God!” ”Do you go back often?” “Once a year”. “Lucky you!” "Oh yes, I am", I often say, while I am thinking, at the back of my mind, that one month of Italy (Europe) per year for me is not very much. Then I think of all the people who could not/cannot afford to go home and then I feel incredibly lucky. For one entire month I have the privilege to find all the fresh food I can possibly dream of at the farmers' market. I can stop wondering if there are onions or garlic in my salad causing me severe bloating and whether the olive oil on my table is better suited to running my car. I can talk to friends and experts with a wider outlook and more willing to help address small but serious health issues. I can try medicines whose flavor is familiar and reassuring, I can hug people without feeling guilty. I can chat with the Head of Gastroenterology about the latest music festival in town, without worrying that I am wasting his time. I can relax and order another gelato, without feeling guilty - the Italian doctor says I should eat a bit of everything! - and without looking pregnant. For one month I can relax and recharge, until the forbidden word comes up in a conversation. Ooops, here it is again: America!

In Italy, if you say you live in America, no matter who you say it to, you know what is coming. You’ll be questioned about your life like a star in town and you won’t be able to escape from being further questioned. All the attention will be on you and you won’t be able to change the subject. Unlike the Americans who briefly say they love Italy and then move onto something else, the Italians want to know more. “Vivi in America? Davvero?” (Do you live in the US? But really?) “Come ti invidio! E’ sempre stato il mio sogno andare a vivere in America! Si vive meglio la’?” (I envy you! Going to America has always been my dream! Is life better there?) I often hear this question when I am in Italy and I really don’t know what to say. Think about it, beside the word “male” (bad) that I often hear in Italy… don’t you think it is hard to convey the complexity of your life in your own country? Right, for me it is the same, with the added complexity that I lived my life in three different countries, that I don’t live in Boston but in the burbs, like most Americans, that Boston is not America and that America is not New York - certainly not Manhattan. See what it looks like on Google maps? Like this.

Wellesley, MA
So you don’t live in Boston?” asked the mom who was sitting next to me on a bench one tepid afternoon in Turin. “Most Americans don’t live in the centre of Boston but in the suburbs, with one or two hours commute to work every day; where there are only houses, usually bad pizza places and fast-food chains.” She looked at me surprised. Whether I liked it or not, I did it again, I carefully prepared the ground to talk about my least favorite thing in America: food. Oops. Like other times, I couldn’t help adding useful details to increase that surprise. “Do people really eat in their car?” “Yep, they eat whatever and whenever” - I was doing it again! I was talking about food, the one thing Italians are so sensitive to and which drives all of their decisions. I was about to destroy her American dream.

Filled with guilt, I talked about my life in America and the things I love most there: the lake I can walk to, the rabbits that return to our yard at Easter time, the geese who are waiting for their turn to cross the street, the cute white van of the postman with the mirror at the back, the coffee shop that roasts the coffee, then the beaches and the cute little villages by the sea, with the stores open all summer. I explained to her that villages are positioned in the middle of nothing, and with only a main street and a little downtown that go through them… that is America. She was finally looking at me enchanted.

Make way to ducklings
Most Italians are obsessed with America but not with the America I know. As soon as I land in Milan, I see this obsession, which looks a bit like infatuation; I see stars and stripes printed all over on t-shirts, sweatshirts, backpacks, scarves.

Tronk's hairdresser in Turin and her American dream
I see either vans, nike or chuck taylors on people of all ages, fake American clothes with obscure writings in bad English, and with names of cities and teams that don’t even exist. Not to mention the clothes designed for doing specific jobs in America, and worn by people who only think of themselves as cool... and the baseball caps worn backwards. In Italy, it isn’t just high-school students. I even saw one of Tronk’s teachers in Turin with one. 

This ridiculous imitation of America in Italy has now, sadly, extended to food. When did they start talking about food in Italy instead of making it? The Expo in Milan, which turned out to be just an expensive celebration of different forms of junk food, is not the only place where I experienced this.

Warning: if you go to Expo 2015, a taste of junk food will cost you 10 euros
I saw many stores exhibiting/selling special healthy bread or pasta and junk food listed on the board. Also, donuts and muffins that looked like they were dipped in paint. A store manager at Eataly, as soon as she saw Tronk, tried to persuade me to try hamburger with fries. In America they eat this way! Come here, I'll show you... If you don’t pay attention, there are now restaurants in Italy that serve food reheated in the microwave. There are also “slow fast-food” restaurants - the name sounds like a joke, I know - and the star of Starbucks, with its burned coffee, has made its appearance in Milan. When did all this start in Italy?

Welcome to Milan!
Subway too?
How many Italian parents are still going home to cook lunch for their children? Do they still know how to do it?

One evening I took Tronk to my favourite buffet restaurant, Brek. I used to go there for lunch on saturdays with my parents to celebrate a good mark in latin or greek. They used to serve all types of food (pasta, meat, fish, vegetables), all cooked from scratch in front of us. That night I saw the restaurant door open but only two counters with the light. The others were completely dark. I was wondering whether the restaurant was open. It turned out it was open but the food was not quite what I expected. To my horror, on the left, I saw a fridge filled with prepackaged food. On the right, they were serving hamburgers, hot-dogs and fries. I was in a state of shock. Was that the same restaurant where I ate as a teen? Manning the hot dog station, I saw a woman who used to work there when I was a teen. She thought she knew me. After hearing me complaining, she said: “ You are right. Brek is no longer the same. People are no longer the same. The new generations ask for this type of food, my son included. What can we do? I don’t like it. I am quitting.” I was confused, disappointed. While I was leaving the restaurant, I saw a kids menu filled with junk, just like the ones we see every day in America. I saw similar kids menus in other restaurants and parents asking for them. In my country?? How could this be possible?
Baby drink?
Red Pizza?

With all the delicious lunch options available in Italy, you go for sugary bombs? 

What changes will our children see in Italy one day? I often wonder about this. It would be nice if this obsession of the stars and stripes brought the best of America to Italy; the ideas of social equity, responsibility, commitment, respect, hard work and justice are all needed in my country. But these things are not in our genes. Instead, we are importing the superficial America; the easy things that ultimately become problems, if they are not already. But why?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Juno's Feast in Arlington MA - La Festa di Juno ad Arlington MA

Nobody celebrates Carnival here in the US, so when January hits us, I know there will be no holidays, no fun, it sucks until Easter. But, every year, the monotony of this boring time of the year is suddenly broken. New England covers itself in white and Arlington transforms into a fairytailish village. Nice but COLD.

This month I knew the snow was about to come.  

"Actually, there will be more than a few snowflakes", said John on Monday with an alarmed voice, knowing the way I feel about being stuck at home in winter. Then the sinister prediction: we'll get 35 to 40 inches (1 metre of snow, like my parents and I used to get on the mountains in Pragelato)! As in every other alarming situation of which people have no control, panic sets in, together with its usual rituals: text messages with the subject "powerful blizzard coming" from the town, travelling bans, overly dramatic videos from New York, super worried messages from family and friends. And by the way, why did they call the blizzard Juno, like the daughter of my friends in England? Will this Juno, the bad Juno, really strike here or will New York be hit first? 

Well, in the end, bad Juno chose Boston and decided to strike us (and surrounding New England), leaving some 4.5 million people, mostly professionals, in fear of losing power, and grappling with as much as three feet of snow and coastal flooding.  It is not the first time that I find myself going through this: the feeling of being stuck for indeterminate time at home while waiting for something good or bad to happen. No doubt the Boston bombers warnings were far more serious, yet I was caught by such similar, familiar anguish while I was looking outside the window, hoping to still be able to see the world and its inhabitants, safe, the day after

The following morning Tronk and I saw this. 

Then the New England snow blower parade started.

 Temperature outside: -10 Celsius!

Everyone outside, joining the snowblowing cause. Many of them in light North Face fleeces.

So I went outside in my street with Tronk. My intention was not to join the parade but to watch it, just like an Italian tourist would do. I was wrapped in my ridiculosly long North Face mummy coat, north pole hat, gloves and scarf. Tronk was so happy to finally be outside after two days buried in the house. My plan was to go for a short walk on the bike path, as we've done many times in the past after a snow storm. 

We discovered, with horror, that there was no longer a bike path!

Mass Avenue, the liveliest street of Arlington, was dead.

I was only able to stay outside for ten minutes, not more, before my hands started pulsating. At some point, my cheeks were burning. And I had to tell Tronk to follow me, as I ran home in search of relief. Tronk wasn't so happy to return home. He wanted to continue his exciting exploration of the neighborhood instead. "Come home!", I screamed as I ran. 

They must have thought I was crazy. Everyone was outside, either dedicated to the cause of removing snow or having fun with sport activities. 

Back in the house, I had an overdose of Italian hot chocolate and wrapped up in my electric blanket in the hope of feeling my body parts again. Meanwhile, Tronk had a blast plowing snow together with John and our neighbor. William, who doesn't owe snow pants, even went snowshoeing in the back yard with another neighbor.

Tronk said later that he did more work than Joe - who is from Buffalo, the snowiest big city in the US.

Many hours later, we went to bed. Still snowing.

This morning, the snowblower parade restarted. And everyone (expect me) joined the traditional New England winter ritual - finding one's car under the snow to drive to work.

So, now everyone is back at work or at least this is the intention in the mind of every Bostonian."Why should I not go to work? It is nice outside!" John, for instance, who was not able to start the car, went to catch a bus to go to work. And my little Bostonian went outside to play with Max and Ben in the nearby yard but the piled up snow prevented him from reaching the destination. Poor guy.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My New Year Wishes

Best Wishes for a  Pill-Free Year!
Until the very end of 2014, my Christmas celebrations have been dominated by bottles of pills. Not much fun.

After spending three days, bedridden, with yet another inflammation attack caused by my screwed up immune system - my right foot was like a  hot-air balloon until yesterday! - I woke up in the new year, filled with hope and with one resolution: I will dedicate the new year to getting my health back, no matter what crazy things I will have to do for it.

On New year's day, Tronk and I watched the fireworks shows that took place in different parts of the world (Rome, New York, Japan, ect). At the end, Tronk agreed that the London fireworks are the best! So I'll end this posting with my old favorite New Year's eve show. In more than one occasion, I was there, with a couple of friends, joining the central London Happy New Year madness: as soon as the Big Ben shoots midnight, hugs and kisses reach you from all the strangers next to you. Most of them are really really drunk. Enjoy the show!

Monday, December 22, 2014

It's Christmas People! - E' Natale Gente!

The Christmas carols in the streets of London and outside Covent Garden station, just after work.

Then the violinists  jumping up and down.

The aromas of mulled wine, hot chocolate and minced pies reaching me from the back,

before going to hunt for a wacky Christmas gift at the Apple Market. 

My yearly concert at Saint Martin in the Fields, alone.

Followed by hot chocolate with friends at the Cafe in the Crypt.

The beautifully lit Trafalgar Square.

One more pint. Two actually! Come on, it's Christmas!

And the cappuccino at Bar Italia or the hot chocolate at my secret place in the street behind. 

Franco, the Sicilian 70 year old Italian chef, in a white suit and a white hat, dancing with women outside the bar, always. I wonder if he is still there, dancing.

We have to go to work tomorrow. All right, all right. It's ok if you are a bit late at work tomorrow.  It's Christmas girl! You're going to be all right. 
Are we all right? 

Nightbus ready to take us home. Drunk, really drunk. 

Morning after, the perfect excuse to be late at work: bus stuck for 15 minutes. Santa's fault, sorry.

It is only Wednesday. "We've got to go down the pub!", says our boss at lunchtime. "It's Christmas everybody!" 

Office empty. When we finally leave the pub, outside is dark and the Christmas lights remind me that it is time to go home (and not to go back to the office). 

But the stores are still open for a while and I have still time to finish my Christmas shopping.

More drinking was needed to swim the day after in the river in the park next to my flat (Kensington Gardens), with few degrees Celsius above zero. But it's Christmas people, what's wrong with that?

Then the yearly tradition of going ice skating in my red jumper at Summer House.

How about one more Christmas gift?

Did I say one? Those candles please. Right, that black leather bag too, thanks. Finding gifts for people there, by the river Thames, was a delight and I really had to make a serious effort to stop myself from emptying my bank account.

With my friend, at another Christmas market. In Winchester, my favorite. No more Christmas gifts. Sure.

Finally, last day at work and then Christmas dinner with the work mates, another yearly English tradition.

Like every other year, turkey, parsnips, bruxelles sprouts, Christmas crackers and loads loads of drinks to then make all of us sing Christmas songs to strangers in the tube (British subway) on the way home. Loved it. 

Back to my shared little apartment: an empty corridor and an empty room. No Christmas tree, no nativity. Perhaps just a small decoration put up by one of my flatmates on the door of his room with a Chinese writing on it.  In my empty flat, no sign of Christmas. There was silence and nobody around. Just sadness. 

So two or three days before Christmas I was going to Italy for a quite, intimate, spiritual, relaxing break with my parents. But my parents' apartment was no longer my house and the seriousness of the Christmas celebrations there was at times hard to take in coming from happy silly London.

The good part was that back at home in my dear Turin I knew I would be taken care and loved by my mom, the best restaurant chef I knew, until January 2nd or 3rd. After that date I would have had to make my way back to London, because the Brits were already going back to work, despite the fact that Ms Befana, the witch who keep all Italians on holiday until January 6th, had not arrived yet in Italy. Luckily, not much was going on at work in London for the first and second week of January so getting paid for getting used to the idea that Christmas was over was not bad at all.

After many years like these, here I am, in Boston, with a much more meaningful Christmas inside the house, with moments like this one for example.


I feel blessed that my Christmas is now in my own house, and with my own family. I have a beautiful family to spend Christmas with, a lovely tree lit and I can look at the nativity, which reminds me of my childhood and see the excitement of my boy, Tronk, when I tell him that baby Jesus is about to come and that Santa will bring more presents under the tree. Back in Italy my parents were putting mostly presents for adults under the nativity. And I knew that I had to wait until Christmas eve for the other colorful shiny packets to magically appear there, next to the others. I remember trying to stay awake as much as possible. I was hoping to hear Santa (or baby Jesus) enter my house in person to bring my presents. I would eventually fall asleep. Next morning, there was my mom reminding me that I had to get ready for mess, then lunch at one of our relative's house. Christmas gifts? Still under the nativity, until late in the afternoon. Not exactly what I want for Tronk's Christmas.

In the last few days, I allowed Tronk see a few of his gifts under the tree to let his imagination go wild. I enjoyed so much looking at him each time he went to sneak a peek at the gifts under the tree and tried to figure out which were his. It didn't take him long to figure it out. He said all excited: "mamma, c'e' scritto Will sui miei regali!" (mom, my gifts have Will written on them!) - He couldn't stop starring at them. 

We'll go to the Church on Christmas eve (4 pm Boston time, which is 10 pm Italian time, close enough to midnight). This way Tronk will have a blast when he will wake up on Christmas day! 

Outside the house, my Christmas has changed dramatically. While I was looking at a Virgin Marie taken out from a nativity and placed next to a reindeer and a Mickey Mouse in someone's yard, I realized that Christmas here in the US is very different. It is inside people's houses, whatever they celebrate, and I find this quite special.

I'll end this posting with just a few lights. Merry Christmas Everyone!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

My Feet Journey - L'Avventura Dei Miei Piedi

Once upon a time there was a girl who was struggling to find shoes. Her mother was determined to convince her to wear nice, classy shoes. To help her achieve that, the Italian merchants, were always trying to squeeze her feet in smaller shoes - size 40 instead of size 42. Her feet were NOT happy. Yet she was always finding ways to continue to wear the most uncomfortable shoes on the planet, including a pair of small pointed-toe suede shoes with high heels, which she was wearing in high school. The girl was actually me.

I am going to give you hell, my left foot must have said one day. And hell came twenty three years later. 

Finding comfortable work shoes in size 41 in London was tough, sometimes impossible. Then I discovered the power of boots. Boots could be worn all year round. They look just enough dressy, sexy but not pretentious, comfortable and could be easily hidden under a pair of black pants. Thanks to them my feet were complaining less, at least not until the end of a long day (occasionally spent walking from zone 5 to zone 1, drunk, and bare feet, like every London girl must have done, at least once).

During the summer, the only pair of sandals I was able to wear  in London would inevitably turn into a piece of junk, with black dirt stuck all over them and I would be counting the days to fall, to when it would make sense to go back to boots. I tried other shoes: sneakers, sandals, flip flops, birkenstocks, crocs, everything!  Nothing ever felt as good as wearing those boots.
We were inseparable.

2007. Why on earth was I walking in a pair of super narrow Puma? Going to work in those at times felt a bit like tightrope walking. 

2008. I was in Boston for the summer, unable to find pain free sandals to wear for 4 months in the large streets of the American suburb (not quite the same as walking in London from bus stop to bus stop).

2009. After Tronk was born I found myself walking more. My shoes purchases skyrocketed. I was buying new shoes, hoping to find a pain free solution, almost every month.

2010. I tried all brands: Ecco, Clark, Keen, Timberland, Merrell, the dorks' brands, last but not least, the bulky shoes you see the elderly wearing in white! All attempts to make peace with my feet failed miserably. Foot doctor: you need arch support! Simple.

2011. I purchased many shoes with arch support: Naot, Dansko, Sanita, you name it. Arch support, arch support! I kept asking for it but my feet were still not happy and the worse had yet to come.

One beautiful day in October I tripped into the curb, while I was trying to run to catch a bus.

2012 Three months in a cast with air pressure were enough to make me forget what it was like to feel both feet on the ground and to walk normally. I had a purple foot and a purple leg and I was struggling to put my left foot down. Toes swollen, almost every day. I could not bend my big toe and the sesamoid bone was broken. Probably an old fracture. Impossible to find pain free shoes. I felt I was in a dark tunnel with no light at the end.

I will never forget the joy of discovering, at some point, that I could actually wear a pair of Merrell sandals without too much pain; I ended up wearing them all summer.

Then the winter came. I was not able to wear any shoes (not even a pair of slippers) without pain. Every day I had a different toe swollen and my foot would not fit in any shoes.  The discovery that my summer sandals were still pain free was reassuring. I remember looking at the snow storm outside the window and, occasionally, at my frozen purple toes sticking out in my summer sandals, with relief. Thank to them, I  was still able to walk. Frozen toes was a small price to pay for that.

2013. I added arch support insoles inside my Keen shoes, as suggested by a third foot doctor, who was working at one of the most prestigious hospitals in the world: Mass General. Not quite the results I was expecting: at some point in February not only I was unable to bend my big toe but I could no longer feel the ground under my foot without excruciating pain in the arch support area. I was told to take anti-inflammatory drugs in large amounts to kill the pain. I remember dragging both feet with pain to take Tronk to the playground without knowing whether I could take him back home or not.

The cortisone shot WAS NOT the answer. It actually made the problem worse: my posterior tibial tendon had become so sensitive I could not touch my foot with a feather without feeling pain all over. A fourth podiatrist looked at my foot and said: arch support, arch support!  Then he taped my foot to correct my gait. Two hours later, I was screaming. The pain was unbearable. Luckily, an orthopaedic foot surgeon told me I had complex regional pain syndrome. The cast I had been put in was to blame for that. His diagnosis was not far from the truth. Try Googling CPRS and see what you get.

After two months of PT, in May, I was still unable to walk. Once again, I was told to purchase sneakers with extra padding and with more support! So I ended up purchasing three different types of arch supported trainers, hoping to find one that I could actually wear. None of the three worked. The shoes that got me back to walking were the Merrell sandals, which didn't have much support at all.

I didn't want to give up and let the complex regional pain syndrome win. So I pushed myself to walk, despite the pain,  as much as I could and I got through the summer, despite I was convinced I would never be able to walk normally again. I was living with a permanent bruise on my ankle bone and I wasn't able to stretch my foot without pain and without weird clicking noises. This is what my foot looked like after six months of PT.

You haven't made enough progress with PT. Perhaps we should put you back in the cast!... said my physical therapist a year ago, one week before my trip to Italy (postponed from May to October).

I decided to stop listening to the "foot experts".

I stopped wearing American sneakers with padding and arch support and moved back into a pair of European like black leather boots, similar to those I used to wear in London but more spacious inside, and in size 43, half size up my actual size. Although I was experiencing my usual complex regional pain syndrome in the ankle bone area, I was finding it easier to walk.

2014. I continued to look for flat shoes, narrow but spacious in the ankle area, which were not touching my foot and I managed to find sox with minimum texture. Winter came. I was walking in the house bare feet. I managed to get through the winter without having to wear another cast. Nor I had to cancel the trip to Italy in spring, although walking was still painful and I had to continue wearing Licodaine patches on my ankle at times but, at least, I was able to go to places. I was hoping that my posterior tibial tendon would heal at some point and that in the non distant future I would be able to look at my foot without having to see an explosion of dead capillaries.

Then we went to Italy and the unexpected happened. I was in a large department store in Turin. John came to me and said: Why don't you try these? You mean... Superga sneakers? You must be joking, these are NOT going to work, I said with confidence. Remember what happened after I tried the Converse All Stars? I was bedridden with plantar fasciitis for four days!

Actually, there is a size 43; they have a narrow fit and are lightweight. Mmm, should I try them on? Oh my God, I can walk. Question: will I be able to wear them in a week without a lot of pain?

They are unisex, in size 43 they don't look like men shoes, can be worn with skirts and they are Italian, as Italian as they can get. I'll buy them.

While I was paying for the shoes, the above image was back in my mind, together with the fond memories of those good old days, the days when I was living in my loft in the historical center of Turin and I was working at the ad agency of Franco Turcati, the photographer who took this beautiful photo.

I ended up wearing (and buying Superga) all summer long. I can always wear them even when my foot is swollen. I am now back on my feet, I started to love walking again and this is what my foot looks like these days.

Promise me you will never add arch support to your shoes. Grazie, Superga.