Dinner Alone in Bologna

Well, it was wonderful…the Bologna part and the alone part.

After three months in San Diego, with family and friends and helping to care for my mother, Ruthie. A summer of caregiving is very intense. Ruthie is almost 94; she is frail, but lucid and not such a difficult person despite her frailties. Caregiving itself is intense: every evening I was exhausted without being sure of what I had done that day. A thousand little things.

Now I was back home in the Milan suburbs where I have lived for 30 years. Barely out of jet-lag fog, I felt eager to learn new things, so I signed up for a translation course in Bologna, a two hour train trip from Milano Centrale.

My modest 3 star hotel was in the university district and next to Via delle Belle Arti….so I could walk along the street that is lined with university faculties, bars, pubs, artist studios and terracotta romanesque churches; all the walls plastered with posters and leftist graffiti (“Fuck Austerity”, “Anarchy Now!”).

It was still warm here at the end of September so the streets were full of students roaming around, eating ice cream, drinking beer; many kids smoking cigs and the occasional whiff of dope sailed past you as you walked along. Cops were around, yes, but there was no sense of aggression in the air. Just a feeling of being comfortably anonymous in a crowd in Europe.

I ate at the Trattoria Belle Arti, of course. Grilled vegetables and cheese with balsamic vinegar (prosecco) followed by tortelloni with porcini mushrooms (red wine). I sent a few text messages to my husband, Yves, who was biking from Paris to London with a high school friend, but apart from those brief communications, nobody talked to me, nobody bugged me and I just thought my own thoughts.

I remembered an elderly couple who were in the water with me at Del Mar on Saturday the week before, the day I left the US. They were catching waves badly, but enthusiastically. Their bathing suits were from the 70s and they each had dorky foam boogie boards with WHAM-O! written on the tail in red and yellow. I fell in love with this couple and their total involvement in that moment, but had forgotten about them in the rush to pack, catch the plane and get re-settled in Arese. How wonderful to see them again, clear as a bell in Bologna.

Just wanted to share, dears.

The Uses of Distraction

As a language teacher, I’ve noticed that learners of a new language pick up more of the target language when they are concentrating on some other activity that distracts them with physical movement. I learned quite a bit of French during tennis lessons when my husband and I moved to Clermont-Ferrand years ago. I’m still a rotten tennis player, but the French has stuck and even evolved.

Focused physical activity seems to lower the resistance to learning a new cognitive set of rules. In turn, the distraction provided by the new cognitive target could motivate the learner to perform sustained physical exercise with health giving benefits. How about that? A two way street.

I’ve begun to play Mahjong Solitaire (on a screen) while walking on the elliptical strider at the gym. Somehow it is helpful to my concentration if I am doing some other movement (like plodding on the treadmill) and not giving all my attention to figuring out Mahjong strategy. At the same time, my tolerance for working up a sweat and “going for the burn” is normally limited to 10-12 minutes before I start thinking about what else is on my “to do” list…yes, yes, I know about 30 minutes a day and 10,000 steps etc.

However! I have now won five medium level games, two of them yesterday, and I was so focused on clearing those tiles off the screen that I strode like the devil for 60 minutes! That is motivating on two levels….one of which is that I burned over 400 calories. The other level involves paying attention, remembering which tiles I have eliminated and calculating the best next move. It also improves eye-hand coordination because, to tap the screen, I have to take my hand off the vertical handlebar which is moving back and forth and occasionally bangs me in the forehead. I’m getting better at ducking without breaking stride.

Maybe the endorphins of the exercise help me concentrate. Anyhow, it’s a moment I look forward to and I’m working on a rap poem about it, entitled “Me ‘n Mah Jong”. Stay tuned.

New activity: Italian-English translator-editor for Tracce.TV

Sometimes you just fall into a new activity.  I have begun translating and editing the English version of a new Italian web tv portal that promotes local, little-know tourist itineraries for Milan and its surrounding province.  One of the creators of Tracce.tv used to be an English student of mine.

This city is not just for fashionistas or industrialists. Milan is filled with hidden treasures: working farmhouses in the city, tours of Milan’s historical libraries, the best bakeries for panettone, bike tours to Gaggiano, the “little Venice” on the outskits of the city. And so on. Each itinerary includes a video and, I’m proud to say, the subtitles are mine.  The brand new site is not yet perfect….needs some tweaking to become more user-friendly, but please have a look at it and send your feedback. www.tracce.tv/


The Unsaid Word

My mother in law, Lily, and I were very close. She was talkative, funny, magnanimous and always took my side. I’m an American expat living in Milan since 1982. My husband’s family left Egypt to move to Italy in 1953, after Nasser took power and before the Suez Crisis. Despite decades in Italy, I’m not quite Italian and neither are they .

When Lily was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in July of 1993, it spread so quickly that we were preparing for her imminent death from November up to the early morning of New Year’s Day 1994 when she left us. The words that were never spoken in Lily’s presence were “cancer” or “death”.

In Mediterrenean cultures, speaking openly about death and disease is far less common.  In Italian, cancer is referred to as quel brutto male–that bad illness, even though the words cancro and tumore exist. The American way of speaking frankly about terminal illness is not thought of as honest and forthright; it is considered brutal or maybe just showing a lack of imagination. I was  given to understand that I should not follow my own way and say those words in front of her. This was a terrible burden to me. 

Towards the middle of December, family members took turns spending the night at Lily’s house, along with a full time nurse. My husband, Yves and our 7 year old,  Deborah came with me one afternoon–Yves and I moving around and sitting at Lily’s bedside, while Deborah wandered off to the living room to draw with her crayons.  At some point, Yves gathered up Deborah’s things to take her home, but before leaving, my daughter handed me two drawings: one of our family–Mommy, Daddy and Deborah–she in her red skirt, standing next to a blue house under an orange sun.  The other was of Lily–drawn in plain pencil, no colors at all.

I sat with my mother in law that night, occasionally giving her tiny sips of water, but mostly just holding her hand. It might have been 3 am when she squeezed my hand and looked straight at me. “Talk to me about love,” she said.  I mumbled something about her great love for her husband who had died ten years earlier, and how I loved her son; after that I don’t know what I said. Finally I just stopped talking and stroked her forehead for a minute. I did not say “death” or “good-bye” and neither did she.

Lily died several days later. I wish we had talked more, but I think about how we shared a silence, perhaps left by those unsaid words.

Why Truman Capote makes my heart sing.

I usually re-read one or another of Truman Capote’s works every six months or so. His works have a voice that speak into my mind’s ear even as I read in complete silence. The Grass Harp, a novella written in 1951, is one of my favorites. I never tire of joining shy eleven year old Collin, the narrator, an orphan sent to live with his aunts. I look forward each time to meeting all the characters who people that small Southern town.
One of my favorites: in a minor episode of the story, a little girl promises to reveal her secret name only in return for a piggyback ride down to the creek to wash her face. Collin tells us, “All the way to the creek she acted the cut-up, and when, with her hands thrust over his eyes, Riley stumbled blindly into a bullis vine, she ripped the air with in-heaven shrieks. He said he’d had enough of that and down you go. “Please: I’ll whisper you my name.” Later on I remembered to ask him what the name had been. It was Texaco Gasoline; because those were such pretty words.”
That sentence is like music, and has inspired me to give secret names to people and places for over 30 years.