There are two authors from my childhood that framed my love for books: L.M. Montgomery and Jane Austen. These two women created a strong foundation in my young mind for what great literature should sound, feel, and look like. I came to a fuller realization of this particular bias of mine upon reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.
I chose this book in particular because one of my dearest friends who is also a lover of Austen and Montgomery said that she loved Gaskell’s stories even more than Austen’s. To me that was high praise. I was hesitant to approach this book since I vividly remember attempting to watch the movie with a large group of friends while in college and becoming so bored by the characters that I abandoned the film for some other kind of entertainment.
I listened to the audio version of Wives and Daughters as narrated by Prunella Scales. She did a fantastic job and her engaging voice drew me in. However, after only a few chapters into the book I immediately became irritated by Gaskell’s young heroine Molly Gibson. Like Montgomery’s Anne, Molly suffers the loss of a parent although in this case her father is still alive. The consequence of this is that Molly possesses and ardent attachment to her father. Early in the book there are instances in which the heroine is brought almost to tears or indulges in full fledged sobbing because of being separated from her father or offending him. She has similar reactions when people she is friends with undergo suffering. Obviously Molly is a very compassionate and tenderhearted soul, but these numerous episodes of obligatory weeping did not endear me to Molly. On the contrary, I became quickly annoyed by her which is unfortunate since, being the heroine, she makes frequent appearances throughout the story. I felt like Molly rarely stood up for herself and that even in the end it is not she who brings about her own happiness but her stepsister Cynthia. Though I grant that Molly does grow and mature over the course of the novel and that Gaskell does a fantastic job at making her seem like many a young sweet girl we might know, I did not find myself rejoicing that Molly had finally found her way. Neither did I find myself emotionally connected with any of the other characters.
Upon reflection, I think the reason for this is more my personal preference in heroines rather that Gaskell’s lack of craft as a story teller. I prefer my leading ladies to be witty, smart, and confident and I do not necessarily need to like them as people (think Scarlet O’Hara and Anna Karenina). Those are the kinds of stories that entranced me as a child and I still crave those kinds of books today. I suppose this is corroborated by the fact that Mansfield Park is my least favorite Austen novel because the heroine, Fanny, seems to lack depth and color beyond being a sweet young girl. I’m glad that reading Wives and Daughter’s provided me with this insight into my reading preferences, but I won’t be reading Gaskell’s North and South any time soon.
The experience of reading Anna Karenina bears some likeness to visiting Florence for the first time. You enter both with the impression that you know all about the place (or story) because culture has already overwhelmed you with the highlights: the Duomo, the Uffizi Galleria, the Ponte Vecchio. Similarly, I felt a bit like I knew what to expect going into reading Anna Karenina: a married woman has a scandalous affair with a passionate young officer and (SPOILER) dies a gruesome death at her own hands. I should have known better than to let this impression that I already knew so much about the story keep me away from reading it for so long. One doesn’t realize until one has experienced for oneself the zeitgeist in question, such as Florence, that it is so often the subtler and and more detailed aspects that cause one to admire and fall in love with these pivotal places, novels, or pieces of music. What made me ultimately give into Florence’s spell were things like trying my first dish of gnocchi, watching the sunset from the Ponte Vecchio, and laying in the warm grass in a park outside the city gazing at the sepia colors with which Florence is painted.
Similarly, there were three things that won me over to Tolstoy’s 950 page novel which had not been previously known to me. First was the character of Stepan Oblonsky, Anna Karenina’s brother, who loves the material pleasures of this world and whose character is painted so vividly by the author. I actually think I might know him. He lives down the street. I occasionally see him on his porch smoking a cigar. He’s the guy who is always wearing a Hawaiian shirt, likes paying young women unseemly compliments, has an ubiquitous beer belly as well as mustached smile, and rotates between poker, hunting, and drinking. Every character in Tolstoy’s novel felt like someone I had encountered before and consequently I was easily drawn into their trials and tribulations and could cry and laugh along with them.
The second element that was a pleasant surprise in the novel was the chapter in which Vronsky’s, Anna’s lover, beloved white horse Frou Frou loses his race and must be shot. I knew nothing about this scene and the cathartic reaction I had when Vronsky must kill one of the things he loves most in his life was not something I had experienced before; I also knew it was a foreshadowing of Anna’s own death.
The third thing that drew me into the book was the endearing and lengthy scene in which Levin is experiencing the birth of his first born. I was not expecting Tolstoy to go into so much detail. The tenderness and extreme emotion of the entire event was proof to me of the autobiographical nature of the scene. It caused me to contemplate what Tolstoy must have been and acted like at the birth of his own son. I also mused over my own memories of how my husband reacted when our little girl was coming into the world.
With all that being said, there were two things I did not like about the book. The first is that I did not care at all for the numerous scenes in which Levin is described working on the farm in the country and waxing philosophical about the right of the working man and the corruption of Russian society with regards to this class. I assume that if I understood the purpose of these scenes in the larger picture of the story, I might be able to forgive them. But they primarily felt obnoxious and meandering and I ended up skimming a lot of them in the last half of the book.
My other complaint is one of my top literary pet peeves: when authors use long phrases in other languages without giving their meaning. I suppose in Tolstoy’s time most of his readers knew French and he lacked the humility to realize is work would reach beyond his country’s vast perimeter, but I at least wish the translators would have footnoted a translation of those sentences.
In conclusion, I vastly preferred this work to War and Peace and I loved the examinations of marriage and love, of city life versus country life, and of passionate versus puritanical moral standards. It has easily become one of my favorite pieces of literature and I hope to come back and visit it again some day.
Last year I made a decision that I would read a book a week. With a 4 year old and a 2 year old I knew this was an overly ambitious goal. However, I had continually been frustrated by several things that I desperately wanted to change about my daily routine. First, I spent more time on social media than I did doing otherwise productive things like praying or self-care. Second, I had never fully re-established my long-standing love of reading since I graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in 2012. Third, I wanted to do something that was almost entirely for my own enjoyment and betterment but was not related to exercise or health and fitness.
Surprisingly, I made my goal of 52 books. Actually, I surpassed my goal and read exactly 80 books by December 31st. The best part was that I never forced myself to ever read anything and thus I never felt bitter about my goal. If I started a book and I was still having trouble immersing myself in it, then I set it down and told myself that I was not saying I would never read it but that it was probably just not the right time for that book. I read everything from long-standing classics to Pulitzer winners to memoirs to fluff fiction to stories I grew up with.
As the prospect of a new year arose, I considered what I could do to make this habit that I had re-established even better. After looking over the list of books I had read, I realized that “books that have stood the test of time” was not the majority. There are tons of books which have shaped the cultural, economic, political, and spiritual landscape of the world. While I read many of these kinds of books in high school and college, there are still many that I have had on my TBR (to-be-read) list for a long time.
After asking friends and family for some recommendations for works of fiction and nonfiction that are either classics or are considered modern classics, I compiled a list of 26 books (13 fiction and 13 nonfiction). Though this number is significantly below the number of books I read the previous year, I do intend to read some “just-for-fun” books beyond this list. Also, some of the classics are notorious for being doorstops, and I wanted to allow myself plenty of time to digest these. Lastly, with a baby on the way in just a few weeks, I didn’t want to be too over-zealous in my book count.
Most of my reading will be done with physical books, but a few I already have on audio. I am pretty equal-opportunity with regards to reading mediums; my primary standard is what keeps me reading more at any given time.
My plan is to write brief reviews or just random thoughts about each book on my list as I finish them. I am planning to finish Anna Karenina this weekend and will post about that book soon.
So, without further ado, here is the list of my books for 2018!
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Free to Choose by Milton and Rose Friedman
Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset
The Life of St. Francis and the Life of St. Thomas by G.K. Chesterton
Theology and Sanity by Frank Sheed
The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
The Diary of St. Faustina
Nearer, my God by William F. Buckley
Theology of the Body by St. Pope John Paul II
I do have a list of additional reading in case I get through all of these, so if you have any recommendations, please let me know!
Our Italian journey is coming to an end and this will be my last blog post here in Italy. On Sunday we will take a train to Rome. After three days in the Eternal City, we will board our plane back home to Wisconsin. I have been delaying this last post for several days because I honestly have no idea how to put into words what our time here has been like. I’d much rather have you over to our home where I would invite you to sit on our couch. I would brew you a small cup of dark bitter espresso from a Moka pot and then we could sit and chat comfortably for hours like so many of the Italians here.
Yesterday evening I watched in near confusion as two ladies (one probably 70 and the other 50) sat on a bench at the fountain in Piazza San Agostino here in Lucca. They sat there with no apparent obligations or hurry to be anywhere. They just sat there, conversing pleasantly on occasion, but mostly watching as the people came to fill up their water jugs, children gleefully raced on scooters or kicked soccer balls, and couples at the nearby cafe sipped glasses of deep red wine. Lucca is no small city, with 10,000 people within the ancient walls, but still no one is in a rush. Everyone seems to know each other, and taking ten minutes to stop in the middle of the street to chat is a regular occurrence. Even checking out at the big supermarkets takes forever because each customer is apparently intimately acquainted with the cashier. Days seem to amble by slowly for that reason. There is never a rush.
Waiters are never eager for us to finish our meal but allow us to sip our final glasses of wine slowly. Every day people go fill up their water jugs in the nearest piazza rather than use the convenient tap-water in their home. A bunch of workers spent over a month repairing who knows what on our apartment’s facade. No one has a dryer here; you must wait all day for your laundry to dry. An excellent bolognese sauce takes an entire morning to make. Wine takes years. There is never a rush.
The other day we ran out of dishwasher soap. Since I knew we would only be here for one more week I decided to hand wash all of our dishes for the remaining days. This worked out well since I cannot run any other electrical appliances while the dishwasher (or washing machine) is running. The power always goes out. At first this irritated me immensely, but then I realized that I was being forced by our own home to do things one at a time, and that is why I was upset. I literally could not do laundry and dishes at the same time. Or cook and run the vacuum simultaneoulsy. The multi-tasking, keep-up-with-the-Jones’, and efficiency-driven American in me was appalled by this. But then I realized….there is never a rush.
We have four full days left in Italy. While I am eager to go back home and be back with our family and friends, I am not in a rush. I hope that if I have learned nothing else since we have been here, I have at least learned enough to be able to stroll through these last few days like one of those chatty Italian ladies sitting on the bench, in no hurry to be anywhere or do anything except be where they are right now and relish the life in front of them. I hope my family and I can savor, cherish, and enjoy these last few days. More importantly, I hope that I can slowly relish our days when we are back in Wisconsin. Because there really is no rush.
After living in Italy for two months, Stephanie and I have decided to move. To Italy? No, probably not. We’ll probably keep living in Wisconsin. The main thing is that we realized it was vitally important that we live someplace beautiful—not Arena. Our house is fine, but our view is ugly, our property is ugly, and our community is ugly. This is nothing against the fine people who happen to live near us; it’s just that they don’t want to be there any more than we do, and the community is, well, not existent. We scarcely ever talk to our neighbors, and it’s not like they’re all having parties together without us.
We bought our Arena house just over three years ago. At the time, we were delighted with our purchase—and still, I do not regret it. We viewed it as a starter home, with the idea that in about five years, we would buy a larger, more permanent house in the country with some land. When we were house-hunting three years ago, these were our inviolable principles:
The house had to be large enough to comfortably fit 2-3 kids; i.e., 3 bedrooms.
Within a reasonable commute from Madison and from my parent’s house.
Houses in Arena are about 15-20% cheaper than houses 10 miles away in Spring Green, Mazomanie, and other nearby towns. Three years ago, that looked to us like an amazing deal, and we took it. But now…well, there’s a reason houses are cheaper in Arena. We’re going to start looking for a new house as soon as we get home to Wisconsin. During this round of house-hunting, our principles will be:
It must be beautiful. This applies to either the house & land itself, or to the view, or to the community in which we live. Ideally, all three; or at least two of the three.
It must have running water and electricity (note that Stephanie and I discussed this at some length, and internet is deliberately excluded. Even though I do require internet for work, that doesn’t necessarily mean I need to have it at home).
It must have a yard in which the kids can play without constant supervision.
It must have at least 2 bedrooms and 1.5 bathrooms.
Note that while our family has doubled in size (and experts project continued expansion), our requirements for home size have decreased. In reality, we’re likely to end up in a place that meets more than our minimum requirement…but we don’t have much preference for that. In a big house, there’s more to clean, more to maintain, and more to heat. Our house in Lucca is a small house, and I have come to regard it as our home as much as I do our house in Arena. In a small house, if you want a break from screaming children, you need to leave the house. I think that’s a good thing. It’s also surprisingly effective if you take one of the screaming children with you when you leave, to go see the river, for instance. Rivers are remarkably effective for soothing screaming children and harried parents. They’re even better than TV, I daresay. A small house also means that everyone in the house necessarily ends up on the same nap schedule, which also tends to improve family life.
We were satisfied with our house in Arena, at first, because the house itself was beautiful. I don’t mean that it’s the sort of house which one might find on a postcard; I mean that it was beautiful in its practicality. It was, and is, highly functional. I mean something else. Stephanie and I spent last weekend near Amalfi. We stayed at this airbnb rental. Scroll through the pictures and come back when you’re done.
We were there for five days. Every morning, I woke up early, made coffee, and sat outside as I watched the sun rise. One morning I smoked a pipe. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I just looked. I did that every day while we were there, enjoying the view…there’s just so much to see, and it’s so beautiful. I did that every morning, and every day was fantastic. Why was every day fantastic? The day follows the morning. If you win the morning, you win the day. Read Stephanie’s last blog post if you haven’t yet. Both our kids threw up driving on those impossible, cliff-hanging winding roads. And then Fiona threw up again, or maybe it was Cillian, or maybe they both did. I don’t remember. The point is that it didn’t ruin my day; it barely even fazed me. In the midst of all that backseat vomit, I told Stephanie “I’m actually having a really good day.”
I was having a really good day because I spent that morning relaxing, un-rushed, reveling in beauty. I want every day to be like that for the rest of my life, and to do that, I need to live somewhere beautiful. This is what I have learned from my time in Italy so far. So we’re moving.
My window is open, my shoes are off, and I inhale the refreshing tang of lemon trees, the crusty scent of salty sea air, and the hearty aroma of freshly baked bread. Dark mossy greens, vibrant almost fiery magentas, delicate ballerina pinks, zesty oranges, and beach blond yellows speed past me in a rainbow as Colin navigates the unbelievably cramped and tortuous roads along the Amalfi Coast. Bushes of flowers are draped like leis over the pastel-colored walls of homes that hug the coast. The colors of the flowers are so vibrant and fresh that I believe someone must come through every night and paint all the flowers like that scene in Alice in Wonderland. It’s in moments like this I refuse to believe that any normal human being can live here. And yet, I see tiny old Italian women walking to get their fresh veggies for the day, olive-skinned men gingerly tending to the various citrus trees and vineyards that are stacked precariously along the side of what seem to be cliffs, and the church bell tolls every half hour. Despite the Eden-like backdrop, people seem to play their parts here no differently than anywhere else on earth. So why does this particular area attract millions of tourists every year?
Just as I am pondering all this, reality smacks me awake in the form of this morning’s yogurt and oranges. Luckily, after an unfortunate trip on an over-crowded and un-air conditioned bus ride to Pisa a few days earlier when this same replica of myself had violently poured her breakfast into my poor husband’s t-shirt, we had learned our lesson and were well-prepared for this event. I had hoped that being on a bus to Pisa with a toddler who has vomited everywhere and having nothing to wipe it up with except for three packs of tissues that several middle-aged Italian ladies have handed you earned us some kind of parenting award or maybe consolation prize. Congratulations! You passed the ultimate test in extreme humiliation and discomfort and you will never have to clean up puke again! Good work!
When I am broken out of my trance and hear the dreaded, “Mommy, I’m sick,” from my 3-year-old, I snatch the plastic grocery bag I have set aside for precisely this moment and try to hold the bag in front of her face as the curving roads cause the car to bump me from side-to-side. Everything goes smoothly. I catch everything. Colin stops the car and uses some wipes to clean up her face. Then he straps her into the carseat and we are back on Amalfi’s winding roads. I give us a virtual high-five.
Fiona has always had a sensitive stomach. She has gotten car-sick half a dozen times on our drives along these roads. And she usually just gets sick once. So I was confident at this point that the rest would be smooth-sailing.
Five minutes later my seventeen-month-old, Cillian, is coughing. Then he is gagging. Then I hear heaving and I cringe. I was not prepared for this. I turn around to check on him but it’s too late. It’s all over his clothes….the carseat…the floor. I thrust a plastic bag in front of him but end up just contaminating my hands. Apparently seventeen-month-old boys have firm objections regarding bags being put in front of their face. Something hits my upper cheek and I try not to breathe through my nose. I keep my eyes closed as I feel my own stomach do flip-flops and tell Colin to pull over. This takes a couple minutes since these confined roads do not have many places to pull over, and most people just end up parking on the road anyway.
Colin finds a surprisingly spacious area to park. He starts stripping off Cillian’s clothes. I attempt to wipe off the carseat but end up just spreading the contents into a wider area. I feel sick. Fortunately, Colin notices that the covers come off the carseat. Thank goodness. As Colin is peeling off our son’s befouled attire, somehow Cillian slips out of my husband’s grasp and falls on his face. I miss most of the scene since I am busily scrubbing partially digested milk deeper into the car fabric. When I glance over at them Colin is holding a striped tshirt on Cillian’s head. It bleeds a lot and he has a bump the size of a meatball, but fortunately he does not seem to need stitches. Colin feels awful about the meatball bump and I am balking at the absurdity of this whole situation. Fiona has been repeating over and over again “Cillian is sick, Cillian is sick” during this whole gruesome scene.
We put Cillian back in the car without clothes. We are back on the road. And then something surprising happens. Fine minutes later we are joking about the whole farcical episode as if it were something that had occurred last year. This would not have been the case two months ago. Two months ago I would be sitting in my passenger seat in silent rage. I would be angry that my kids had ruined such a gorgeous and peaceful drive. I would be irritated that Colin hadn’t thought to drive more slowly. I would be disappointed with myself for not having more plastic bags and for having given the kids too much food at breakfast. But we are both laughing. And I don’t mean the this-is-so-ridiculous-we-have-to-laugh. We see the humor in the situation and we are unperturbed. And so are the kids.
Five minutes pass and we go through the whole process once more with Fiona.
After Colin tosses this third bag of undigested breakfast into a nearby trash can, he gets back in the car, looks at me, and says, “I’m actually having a really good day.” I smile and say, “Me too.”
The rest of our drive is uneventful. I am still confused as to why the events of this morning did not unravel me like they would have previously. People travel thousands of miles and they spend thousands of dollars just to be able to glimpse for a few brief moments some of the most beautiful places our world has to offer, and it does not change their lives. A picturesque backdrop does not make their life more pleasant, easier, or happier. They are still going to be cleaning up puke off their shirt whether they are in a small Midwestern town or driving along the Italian coast. You can decide to let those events change the course of your whole day or you can decide that it is just a small part of the journey. I know this is probably obvious to many people, but for me it has been one of the most difficult things I have had to learn here.
Fiona walked ten miles yesterday. She still got up at 8:30 this morning. I don’t know how she does it. Stephanie is still asleep at 11am, for perhaps the first time in her adult life. That is less surprising.
We did Florence yesterday. Up at 5am for Steph, because the price of eating & drinking without guilt is that she does her workout every day. (The price I pay for eating without guilt is that I drink so much I’m incapable of feeling guilt). I was up at 5:40. Kids were up at 6. Left the house at 6:17. Walk. Train at 6:48. In Florence at 8:27, 22 minutes behind schedule.
Walk. Accademia at 9:00. I found the David every bit as awe-inspiring as a billion other people have before me. Michelangelo made David when he was 26. It was recognized as a masterpiece immediately, and helped to launch him on his masterful career full of big commissions. We wandered through the other parts of the museum and came back to look at it three or four times.
Walk. Look at the Duomo (we didn’t go inside). I admired the colorful green marble used on the facade; apparently it is often criticized by experts. Oops.
Walk. Piazza della Signoria. Fiona alternates between my shoulders and walking on her own. She’s mainly walking on her own now, because I tricked her into jumping in puddles so that when she asked to get back up, I could tell her no because her feet were too wet. More statues; the newer, fake David in the place of the original. Perseus with the head of Medusa. A magnificent statue of Neptune that apparently Michelangelo considered to be a colossal waste of marble. Oops.
Walk. Past the Uffizi; it is only 11 and our Uffizi reservation is for 2:15. Along the Arno, across the Ponte Vecchio. Sit. Decide where to go for lunch.
Walk. I finally let Fiona come back up on my shoulders, which means my shirt gets wet from her feet, but I don’t mind. It was a fun game. I’m only carrying a child half of the time while we’re walking, but Stephanie always has one in the baby carrier. Every so often she’ll switch Cillian from her front to her back and vice versa so as to evenly distribute sore muscles.
Sit. Water. Salad, pizza, wine. More water, but it’s not enough. It’s never enough. It is not possible to keep properly hydrated on a day like this.
Walk. The street markets in Piazza San Lorenzo. This is where everybody who has ever gone to Florence acquires a genuine Italian leather jacket (or purse, or wallet, or belt). Stephanie has a scarf—her favorite scarf, she’s wearing it now—that she purchased here when visiting in high school. Fiona dances down the street, talking to everyone. We buy nothing. We choose to spend our money on food, wine, and…food, and wine.
Walk. It’s time for gelato. Rick Steves recommends a place near the Uffizi, which is where we’re going next, so that’s our destination. I choose cioccolato e pistacchio. It’s not a good combination. Or maybe it’s just that the pistacchio isn’t my style.
Walk. Now the Uffizi, Florence’s premier—and intimidatingly large—art museum. Giotto. Walk. Botticelli, da Vinci…no. There are seven rooms closed for restoration, including these ones, but the best works have been temporarily moved to other rooms for display. It takes us half an hour of wandering to find them, while I follow Cillian. After being locked in the baby carrier all morning, he’s moving like one of those toy monkeys with cymbals. After a minute or so he shoots off in the wrong direction. I pick him up from behind, turn him around, point him in the right direction, prod him in the back to wind him up, and he’s off. This performance usually gets a chuckle from onlookers. I repeat it fifty times. This is fun. It’s my favorite part of our time in the Uffizi. None of the art here is as striking to me as the David.
Walk. There is a nude Venus that prompts the beginning of a discussion that Stephanie and I continue on and off throughout the rest of the day. What is the difference between art & pornography? What is beauty? I point out that Mary is never painted nude. Yes, but Jesus often is, and besides, as Stephanie reminds me, Mary is often breastfeeding. Maybe it has something to do with anonymity—portraits of individual historical figures are never nudes; the nudes are always either anonymous figures or ancient figures.
Sit. We are just outside the Uffizi now, and there are benches. We put the kids down while we decide what to do next. The ground is now dry after the morning’s rain; we decide we need some time in a park for the kids to play on the grass. It is hard to find a park in downtown Florence. It will be a 20-minute walk. Fiona is prancing back and forth on one of the benches, with dozens of weary Asian tourists looking on admiringly and proudly speaking to her in Italian that Fiona does not understand, except for “ciao”. She’s wearing a shirt today that says “Ciao”, which has led many people to say it to her, to her great satisfaction. As we prepare to move on, I tell Fiona to say “ciao”. She does, and twenty people respond enthusiastically. I then lightly pick her up onto my shoulders, to gasps of admiration from middle-aged women who know what I’ve been through today. But a parent’s job never ends. Carrying my children on my shoulder for miles is not difficult, although it is often painful. The reason it is not difficult is that I freely chose it.
Walk. And walk, and walk, and walk. What is beauty? I say that the first sense of beauty is “that which is pleasing to the eye”, and then, by analogy, that which is pleasing to the other senses, and also, by analogy, that which is pleasing to the mind. Stephanie points out that this is completely subjective; one person’s eye is not the same as another. But still, we tend to have a surprising degree of agreement about what is and is not beautiful. Roses are more beautiful than dandelions. There are beautiful actors & actresses in Hollywood—as a society, we pay them millions of dollars to appear in movies so that we can all watch them be beautiful. Fiona wants to watch the river; she can’t see over the stone wall lining the sidewalk. I pick her up so that she can appreciate the beauty of the river.
Walk. We get to the park. It’s not actually the right park; it’s a large green lawn surrounding every Italian town’s mandatory monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II. But it is just what I wanted, so we stop. I sit down at the base of the monument and release Fiona to run through the grass. Shoes and socks off. I take the kids’ shoes off too. Within ten minutes, Fiona is trying to do yoga with a couple of ladies at the other end of the park. They stop doing yoga; she hands them leaves to throw into the wind. Cillian climbs into one of the lady’s laps.
Lay down. Grass is beautiful. Grass, and sunlight, and clouds, and feet that are now dry and no longer sweaty and swollen. When I open my eyes, the clouds rushing past overhead make it look like Vittorio’s horse is falling, falling, falling and constantly getting nowhere. It is strange that this lawn is almost empty, when the Uffizi was, and always is, crowded. Why would anybody ever go inside trying to find beauty?
Still laying down. There’s a train every hour. It’s now too late to catch the 6:10. We could do the 7:10 if we have a quick dinner or if we decide to do dinner back in Lucca. Or we could have a nice sit-down dinner and take the 8:10 train. We both want to do this, but we’re both hesitant to suggest it. Stephanie is hesitant because she knows that I’d be sensitive to the cost. I am hesitant because I am sensitive to the cost, and also because if I suggest it I am worried that Stephanie will feel unable to disagree. Rick Steves has an option that looks perfect.
Walk. Water. Wine. Pasta, bread, steak, bread, more meat, salad, bread. Dinner is excellent and costs 45 euro—cheap. The kids are full. I am not, but that’s ok. It’s time to head to the train station.
Walk. I can tell that Cillian is full because his belly is pressing firmly against the back of my head as he sits on my shoulders; it was not before the meal. Fiona is in the baby carrier. She spends all day watching Cillian sit there peacefully, and gets jealous. She doesn’t actually like it, she’s too old, too squirmy. She did nap there once, but not today. Cillian got two small naps.
Train. I continually grab Cillian and scold Fiona to keep them from falling down the stairs. They are both careful enough to be trusted with stairs when we’re not on a train, but the train is moving and liable to lurch, and neither of them understands this. They are incessantly active. They can’t sit still. Fiona has not slept in 15 hours, which is a long time for her, especially given the activity of the day. Stephanie expects her to sleep until noon. I think ten is more likely. Our children are beautiful. Their faces, their activity, their behavior. Perhaps the difference between pornography and art is that beautiful things draw your attention outward, away from yourself, onto the beautiful object. Pornography is intended to cause you to direct your attention back to yourself. But I am too busy paying attention to my children to think about this much on the train. I am yawningly tired for most of the train ride, but a parent’s job never ends, and I focus on my children instead of on myself. It is not difficult.
Walk. It’s a 20-minute walk home from the train station, in the dark, down silent streets, but we’re in Lucca, which means we’re home. No maps needed. Stephanie tries to convince Fiona that she is made of chocolate. Maybe she’s trying to convince herself, too, because Stephanie and I have agreed that we would dearly love some chocolate, but we have none, and no way to get any. There are no twenty-four hour gas stations here, and even if there were, they’d only sell gas—not chocolate.
Home. Fiona does not want to go to sleep. She does not want to pee on the potty. She does not want to brush her teeth. They’re both asleep in five minutes.
I drink a quart of water. Eat a banana. A shot of grappa, since we’re out of the good whiskey (that keeps happening to me).
I’m not sleepy anymore. We sit at the table. Wine. Steph opens her ipad and I open my computer. I have not checked email all day. We ask each other what we’re doing. “Nothing important.” We close our devices. We start talking about our next trip, to Amalfi. This is our nice, five-night “vacation within a vacation” during which we will celebrate our four-year anniversary. We leave next Wednesday. This is a problem I constantly have. Whenever I finish something, my mind moves to the next thing and starts planning, unbidden, before I have time to properly appreciate whatever it is I’ve just accomplished. I open my computer to check the weather in Amalfi. It looks ok. I end up reading a long post on reddit by a James Bond stuntman.
We drink half a bottle of wine. We have already agreed that we will set no alarms in the morning. I’m tired again; time for bed.
We are over halfway through our stay in Italy. It’s difficult for me to imagine getting on the plane, tracing our path backwards, and going “home” in 5 weeks. In many ways, Lucca and our little apartment here have become as much our home as our house in Arena. Even though we are far from many of our family and friends and the conveniences of our I-need-it-now American society, our family has learned to make a home here, even though it is a temporary one.
I’ve learned by trial and error that the power will inevitably go out if I run the dishwasher, washing machine, and vacuum at same time. Or the dishwasher and vacuum. And today it happened with just the dishwasher.
I relish going out in the early morning to pick out a loaf of bread, warm from the oven, that resembles a rock more than a loaf. I grin as the baker hands my children salty slices of focaccia for them to nibble. I can smell the bitter oil from the bread on their hands as we walk home. My baby carrier is full of crumbs.
I anxiously look forward to playing the game in which I try to keep up with the middle-aged lady with fresh dirt under her nails at the vegetable stand. I manage to summon up the Italian word for eggplant before she asks me “E poi?” After she bags the bulbous purple veggie, I say “E poi, sei mele.” She bags and weighs 6 apples. I ask for 3 heads of garlic, and I am quite proud of myself since the word for garlic (aglio) has escaped me numerous times. But then for some reason I can’t recall the word for cucumber and have to point to want I want saying “Questo.” And the game ends.
I am repeatedly amazed by how few toys my kids need. Their lack of countless toys for me to grouchily step on and shove into a box has facilitated their instinctive curiosity. Not only do they play with the simplest objects (plastic kitchen utensils, boxes, empty yogurt containers) but we are also eager to go outside more. We go to the park, take evening strolls, and run errands together. We brought with us from home: Fiona’s stuffed bunny, Cillian’s blanket, some crayons, and one of those magnetic scenery boards. Despite a few books we purchased at the nearby bookstore and a gift from my mother, there are no other “toys” in our apartment. I honestly cannot say that my kids are better or worse behaved than when they are at home with superfluous amounts of toys. I can say, though, that like so much of our life here over the past few weeks, my children have learned to adapt and they have learned to create entertainment for themselves.
We have also realized that learning can be awkward. Also, the stereotype that every Itailan has a working knowledge of English is false for anyone over the age of 30. The morning after we got back from Venice, I was confused when I heard our doorbell buzz twice. We don’t actually live here. We’re just renters. Why is someone ringing our doorbell? I answered the door and a short Italian woman in her late 60’s stood before me, her husband standing in the background. She immediately asked me “Parla Italiano?” I said I spoke a little and asked if she knew English; she chuckled and shook her head. Then she proceeded to speak imploringly to me while waggling her olive finger at the back of our apartment. My head whirled as I tried to keep up with her fast-paced Italian. Why is it that after months and months of learning Italian, I could grasp only two words from her, and neither of them were useful? She repeated spingere and fuori. Fuori? Does that mean flower, I wondered? There are flowers in the back of our apartment. She then indicated wanting to come inside. I figured that when an almost 70-year-old Italian woman comes to your door out-of-the-blue and is apparently asking you to do something for her, you should probably let her in. After spending a good 3 minutes fawning over my children, stroking their cheeks, asking their names and ages, and repeating bellisimi over and over, she pointed to our bedroom door. At this point I was very confused and embarrassed by my inability to comprehend her. I opened the bedroom door hoping some clue to her predicament would come to light. She pointed outside again. Then I caught two words I understood: la luce and dormire. Finally I understood what was going on! I opened the door in our bedroom that leads to the back of the apartment. I looked outside for the light above the door (which I had not realized existed until that point). Sure enough, the light was on. It must have been on the whole weekend while we were in Venice. My face warmed. I felt awful and my stomach seemed heavy and sick. This light was disturbing the poor woman’s sleep and probably the sleep of several other of our neighbors. I apologized profusely. Luckily, she was very amiable and forgiving about the whole situation. She went back to the entryway where her husband was still standing and delightfully told him the problem had been solved. After a few more necessary che bellisimi for my kids and a grazie mille for me, the couple left. Colin and I took her a bottle of wine the next day as a form of apology.
I miss our home in Wisconsin. But I know we will also miss our home here in Lucca.
Our trip to Venice last week was absolutely magical (and unfortunately very wet). It was like visiting another world. We will hopefully get some pictures up from our Venice weekend this week. Colin came down with a cold and the kids got a bit of it too. Consequently, blogging fell by the wayside. Other than that, we have been busy figuring out a solid daily routine, trying out delectable new wines, and learning how to converse with our neighbors (who came by unexpectedly after we accidentally left the light on in our backyard for several nights…YIKES!).
Lately I have also been doing a lot of cooking. Last week I made a chickpea soup. Chickpeas are in everything here in Lucca; crepes, soup, pasta, and even cake! I’m not sure how the mothers can bear all the beans they eat here; I’m almost ready to hire someone to change Cillian’s diapers for me!
This morning I decided to use up a pound of ground vitello (young calf meat) I had in the fridge to make a meat sauce for lunch this afternoon. I purchased the cookbook below a few weeks ago, and so far I have enjoyed the stark simplicity of all the recipes. Don’t let the short ingredient list fool you, though! These Italian Nonnas new how to use the fewest ingredients while packing the biggest punch of flavor in every bite. I am also impressed by the frugality of the recipes; the Lucchesian women take seemingly useless pieces of food and turn them into a meal. Many recipes use things like stale bread, parmesan rinds, and chicken livers.
Here are the ingredients for Sugo di Carne (Meat Sauce)
Olive oil (alway extra virgin)
500g ground beef
One chopped of each: carrot, celery, and onion
Salt and pepper
300g Peeled tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
20g dried mushrooms
Funghi (mushrooms) are also hanging (literally) everywhere around here. You buy them dried and then soak them in a little water before you add them to your dish. I’ve never put mushrooms in my meat sauce…so I was a little skeptical. However, I found that the earthy aroma and meat-like texture of the mushrooms complemented the other flavors surprisingly well.
The key to a good sauce (in my humble and very inexperienced opinion) is time and taste. The longer you patiently allow your sauce to simmer, the more time you give the flavors to meld. So after browning my meat in a bit of olive oil, I added in my chopped veggies and sautéed them for 15 minutes. I then added the remaining ingredients and let my sauce simmer for 2 hours. Throughout this time I occasionally tasted the sauce and added salt, pepper, water, basil, etc. as needed.
After your sauce is done, cook up some spaghetti (always al dente) and pour a ladle-full of sauce over your pasta. I like to add some freshly chopped parsley on top for color and because fresh parsley on pasta is delicious. You can also save a little bit of your pasta water and add it to meat sauce so that your leftover sauce isn’t too thick when you go to reheat it. Buon appetito!
We just finished our 4-day side trip through some of the quintessential Tuscan hill towns. It was an inordinately demanding trip due to all the stops we had to make and the inconvenience of sleeping in a different location every night. However, our drive gave me lots of time to think about all the reasons why traveling with our kids has made our Italian adventure even better. 1. Better Planning
When you are traveling with kids you have to be more diligent about planning, but, at the same time, you need a flexible schedule that allows for those unplanned but inevitable events that kids manage to sneak into your day. While this does mean fewer spontaneous nighttime strolls to the bar down the street, it also means that we stay safer when walking about at night, we don’t overwhelm our days with too many activities (we pick one or two big things to see/do), and we set a schedule for the day while also paying close attention to how we and the kids are feeling. Sometimes we can easily push through a long travel day without a nap and maybe have lunch an hour later than normal. Other days that doesn’t work out so well and we have to be willing to switch gears to accommodate hangry and exhausted children. Usually I am grateful for these helpful reminders from our kids because I find I’m usually starving too and need a break! Going too long without food or rest makes for a less pleasant experience for us and them. For this reason I think we get so much more out of the places we visit. Luckily Cillian has become a pro at napping in the car!
2. Social Lubricant
Everyone adores children because kids are accepting of everyone, they are always happy to see you, they are cute, and they love asking lots of questions. We were at the park one day and Cillian nonchalantly sat at a park bench next to a boy and started playing with his toy cars. They played together for half an hour and Fiona eventually joined them. I chatted briefly with the boy’s (Simone’s) dad. I was delighted by my kids’ eagerness to join in other children’s activities. Recently, when we are out walking to get our groceries for the day or run a short errand, Fiona has started to unabashedly exclaim “CIAO!” To every person we pass. Is it a little embarrassing? Sometimes. But I am repeatedly inspired by our kids’ untamed social skills (or maybe I should call them innate social skills). Why shouldn’t I go up to people and start an amiable conversation or greet every person on the street with a huge smile. Kids give you an easy shortcut to these types of social interactions. They make it easier to meld into the life of the culture that surrounds you.
3. Natural Wonder
When we were visiting the Vatican in Rome the ONLY thing Fiona wanted to do was terrorize the pigeons. I was annoyed at first. Here she was in front of one of the most beautiful parts of Rome and she wanted to catch a dirty Roman pigeon. In that moment I realized that she had never seen a pigeon before, at least not at this proximity. She was as enamored by the novelty of a simple pigeon as I was by grandiosity of St. Peter’s Square…perhaps more so. Children are naturally curious. And it is so easy to forget to be curious when you are traveling. Ask questions. Explore. Don’t be afraid to chase pigeons.
4. Stronger Families
Traveling with family creates valuable memories, forces you to make tough decisions together, and teaches you to work things out quickly and efficiently (and with charity, hopefully). You can’t escape difficult situations. There is no “going into the other room to cool off” for you or your kids. We used to have our kids go to their room when they were over-stimulated or upset, but while travelling we have had to find other techniques for helping them manage their anger and stress (and Colin and I have had to do the same for ourselves). When your two hungry and nap-deprived children are crying in the middle of a crowded street in Lucca, you have to figure out and agree upon a solution quickly, even if it isn’t the result you wanted. There is lots of compromising, sacrificing, plenty of embarrassing temper-tantrums (which happen whether or not you are traveling), and lots of close one-on-one time with your kids. Our faults and strengths come through more palpably. Those are precisely the kinds of situations that can bond your family in new and meaningful ways.
Cillian needs physical love and attention when he is upset; he can entertain himself for an hour with a pile of dirt or kitchen utensil; he learns primarily by hitting things together.
Fiona craves praise; she is eager to interact with kids and adults; she has BIG feelings that sometimes all come out in one single uncontrollable moment; she cares deeply about how others are feeling.
Colin and I tend to over-analyze our arguments; he goes into focused but unworried problem-solver mode in stressful situations while I go into pessimistic we-are-going-to-die mode. I don’t like making decisions or taking initiative because I fear making the wrong decision or initiative and what people will think of me; I talk to my husband to avoid talking to people; I’m actually a really amazing Mom with bad days here and there.
5. New Responsibilities
This reason came to my mind more with reference to families with older kids. Think of all the exhilarating and challenging activities you can involve your kids in when traveling with them. You could have them help you plan a day trip somewhere and figure out what sights to see. Traveling has fantastic opportunities for developing leadership and organizational skills. Also, Fiona has done a bit of this, the older kids can help the younger ones who are struggling with walking or just need to be entertained a bit. One of the things I have noticed is how much Fiona has wanted to help me carry our grocery bags whenever I take her out shopping with me. Today she insisted I let her carry something. Kids WANT to have responsibilities. They WANT to help. Traveling with them is an incredible way to nurture that desire.
6. Spend less buying spend more doing
Other than postcards and a couple books, we have not bought one souvenir since we have been here. Money is more of an issue when you travel with kids (since you have more mouths to feed) and, therefore, you are much more thoughtful about where you spend your money. Many of the best memories can’t be bought. My dearest memories from our trip so far have been when we spent the least amount of money: Fiona and Cillian playing at the park in Lucca with a bunch of Italian kids, Colin and I sipping wine while overlooking a Tuscan panorama, our family playing on the beach in Monterosso and getting soaked in the Ligurian sea. Those memories will outlast any trinket.
7. More meaningful memories
I think this one is pretty self-evident. When you do things with people you love, your memories of those times are much sweeter. Our trip to Italy would have been wonderful if it had just been me and Colin, but adding the kids to our trip has made it exponentially more memorable and beautiful. Sharing these memories with more people I love makes the whole experience so much more profound. Also, we can share these memories together for years to come, which is harder to do when your travel companions aren’t family.
8. Slow down
In addition to having to plan fewer activities in our days, we also have to physically walk slower and travel slower. We have to physically slow down and take a break at the nearby park, or let Fiona stop and pet a passing dog, or pause to let the sweet Italian baker hand my kids pieces of focaccia as big as their heads. These pauses allow us to stop and cherish the very normal parts of our journey and appreciate the aspects of the culture here that we might easily pass over. Our kids remind us to savor the moment (sometimes quite literally).