Two And A Half Months In Milan

I’ve been in Milan, Italy for two and a half months—long enough to have “gotten used to it” in a lot of ways, but not long enough to simply take for granted the way things are. It seems, therefore, the right time for me to share some observations.  None of this is related to what’s going on with our health situation–it’s about what surrounds it.

#1. Milan is very organized. The Italians in Milan are very organized. This came as bit of a surprise to me because my experience of Italians was always the crazy ones who left the civilization of Europe for the jungles of Costa Rica. And that is one wild bunch. As one might say of Americans, the calm, sensible, reasonable, judicious ones stay at home. The Italians in Milan live in small apartments on narrow streets with small cars parked either in small parking spaces or in small “boxes” that are box-like garages that go with their apartments. Underground.  The apartments have small, immaculate kitchens with small refrigerators and small pantries filled with small packages of food. Nothing comes in bulk. Small living rooms have small couches. Children (even adult children, if they live at home) sleep in single beds. You do small loads of laundry every day because there is one drying rack and you have to fit everything on it. And in Milan, to my surprise, EVERYBODY IRONS. Religiously. I kind of thought ironing was one of those things people used to do, but I guess not.

#2. Trash is not just trash. Oh no. There are three types of trash, one of which is recycling, and there are three types of that. These items are disposed of separately, and no one would think of saying “the hell with it” and just dumping it all together. That’s not how it’s done. Glass, plastic/metal, and dry paper are separated (by you when you take out your trash to your building’s trash area–because if you live in Milan, you likely live in an apartment). Then there’s “wet” trash and “dry” trash. Food trash goes in the “wet” bin: egg shells, carrot peels, coffee grounds, used paper products, etc. The last category is “undifferentiated” which is everything else, which isn’t all that much. I’m told you get a fine if you do a bad job of separating your trash. I’m not sure how that works as I haven’t noticed any surveillance cameras in the trash area, but I’m trying not to find out!

#3. With the exception of polenta, which might be compared to the southern USA’s grits, it seems that Italians do not eat corn. There was zero sweet corn in the markets this summer. To find corn flour for tortillas and/or cornbread, I had to go to a special international grocery store. Also, there is no frozen corn in the grocery store—only canned. This isn’t a problem for me because the main way I consume corn in in tortillas, but I do think it’s interesting. I know that corn is a grain from the Americas, I just assumed that since in the Americas we eat pasta, in Italy there would be corn. Well. There might be, but it is not in Milan.

#4. Oatmeal is a special health food, not a staple. I searched the supermarket high and low for it and finally discovered small over-priced bags of plain old oatmeal tucked into the Special Health Food row between the organic fair-trade rice cakes and the organic fair-trade soy noodles. Good grief.

#6. Unless there is a special pedestrian signal—the kind featuring a red person standing or a green person running—that directs otherwise, you are supposed to walk directly in front of oncoming traffic at crosswalks. Only at crosswalks, mind you, but you are NOT supposed to stand there and wait for drivers to come to a full and complete stop for you. They hate that. If you do, they will glare at you and make annoyed Italian hand gestures. They know they aren’t supposed to run over you. They’re very organized and hate anything that makes a mess, so you can trust them. They will slow down enough to keep from hitting you, and everyone continues on their merry way. And you don’t have to run, either. Just walk across the street like you own it. You do.

#6. All of the history weights on people. Or maybe there’s some piece of it that I’m not able to see clearly, yet. They love their history in the same way that you might love a family member who is suffering from dementia—truly, and yet some selflessness is required in the process. Italy IS History, and to physically navigate Italy, or at least Milan, you must physically navigate through History and its mad twists and turns, reversals, successes, and failures. Nothing simply is. Everything was, and was before. I think about this as I walk or ride around the zillions of round-abouts that are constructed to direct traffic flow around historical monuments like La Porta Romana, one of the gates that once opened into the medieval city of Milan but that now stands in the middle of it. Since you can’t tear down a thing like that, you go around it. And here, there are a lot of “things like that.” All of it acquires some weight.

And here are some other minor observations in no particular order:
–City-dwellers love their plants! Every balcony and available roof space is crowded with them.
–Before noon, if you want to eat something that isn’t a form of bread, you’d better eat it at home because no one will sell you anything else.
–Baby strollers have the baby turned the other way facing mom/dad. Smart!!
–You’re not supposed to smile and say hi to strangers. That’s not “polite” or “friendly,” that’s creepy.
–“Ciao” means hi and bye, but you don’t say it to people you don’t know. To people you don’t know, you say “salve” which also means either hi or bye.  And I always feel like I’m telling the persons to save her/himself which makes it hard for me to say with a straight face.
–All flowers are beautiful, including “wildflowers” which would be known as “weeds” where I come from.
–Grocery carts are locked together. To use one, you have to put a coin into the lock to open it. Your coin rides around in the cart with you, and when you return and re-lock it, you get your coin back. Again, smart!! Guess what country doesn’t have shopping carts all over the parking lot?

La Porta Romana. One of many ways history affects daily life.

Plan C

Plan A was going pretty well. Nobody’s life is perfect, but we didn’t have a lot to complain about. After five years in the USA, we were back in Costa Rica’s endless summer, working our butts off and surfing. Making decent money, having a good time, riding around on the motorcycle, chilling in our hammocks. Something like that is worth aspiring to. That was Plan A, and it was a really good plan.

In Plan A, there are two of us, and we live in Costa Rica.

Then, two months ago, Plan A crumbled in a major earthquake. Pio wasn’t feeling well. Medical tests revealed a malignant stomach tumor that had metastasized to his liver—and had already made a wreck of it. It is impossible to guess how long all of this was going on without giving any indication except for disturbing premonitions that I refused to listen to, because, how can you tell a premonition from paranoia? (And what do you do about it anyway? Say to your perfectly-healthy husband, “Honey I think there’s something wrong with you?” Probably not.) We got on a plane and came to Italy. Things were sliding quickly down a slippery slope.

So I had to wrap my head around Plan B. In Plan B, there’s only one of us. It’s me, and I am a widow. The doctors wouldn’t say anything more than, “This is very advanced,” and “It’s a shame you’re so young.” For about 6 weeks, I worked on that one. Slowly. In very small increments. One dreadful piece of the puzzle at a time. Just because you think about something doesn’t mean it will happen. But it doesn’t do you any good to refuse to think about the possibilities. So I went there. And sat with that for a while.

I have something to say about Plan B. If you haven’t thought about this before, here’s the newsflash:  in general, women live longer than men. Most of us will become widows. Sooner or later. Tumors aside, there was always every chance that Plan B was going to follow Plan A. I’m not being morbid–I’m being observant. Part of me said I knew that someday this was going to happen, and another part answered that I didn’t expect it NOW.

And then the slide down the slippery slope suddenly slowed. So Plan A is still lying in ruins, while Plan B is also indefinitely delayed, thank God.

Which brings us to Plan C.

Plan C is better than Plan B, because there are two of us. But one of us is sick, so it’s not a happy plan like Plan A. It has happy days, though. It has happy moments. It has scary ones and sad ones too because the ghost of Plan B has been introduced to the scene and stands quietly in the corners. In Plan A, you decide things together. In Plan B, you decide them all yourself. Plan C has some of each. In Plan A, you get to do what you want with your life. In Plan B, you do what you want with what’s left of your life (if you can think of anything). In plan C, you stay in Milan and wonder what’s going to happen to you, how long you’re going to have to stay there. You don’t know if it will be for months or for years, and you don’t know which of the other two Plans this Plan C is going to give way to.

But you know it will be one or the other. Sometime. Whenever that is. Whatever is required of you in between.

Rainbow over Corsico, July 2017

Who Would Have Thought

Who would have thought that being tired could be a symptom of something so sinister?  It seemed so normal, especially for someone who works as hard as my husband does.  Especially in Costa Rica where it’s so hot.

Who would have thought that the pain in his shoulder wasn’t a strained muscle or a pinched nerve?  Who would have thought that it was a reflection of things going wrong in an organ that can’t feel pain–his liver?

Who would have thought?

But then pain started under the right side of rib cage, and the tiredness grew into a constant sort of pallor and an uncharacteristic exhaustion.

Who would have thought that when that ultrasound showed something that the doctor would refer to as “metastasis” in my husband’s liver, I would be the one having to lie on the floor with my feet up because of the dizzy spell that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go?

Who would have thought, or even begun to guess, how many things were silently going wrong?  But blood tests don’t lie.

Who would have thought I would find myself sitting at my desk on a Thursday afternoon, refusing tears, buying plane tickets for Italy two days later?

Not me.

But that is exactly what happened.  As an Italian citizen, his medical care will be nearly free here, and let’s not compare the doctors in Milan with the ones in Liberia.

Who would have thought that it takes 10 days to get the results of a biopsy?

Who would have thought 10 days could take so long?  When you watch your husband become weaker by the day and all you can do is smile and try to breathe, it seems like 100 years.

Who would have thought I could put on my shoes in the morning, go outside for a run, and could run 7 kilometers before I was tired enough to stop?  Not me.  I don’t even like running.  Although I like it better than waiting.

I keep reminding myself of what I wrote a few months ago about being fearless vs being brave.  Right now I am being brave.  Because I am scared to death.  I’m afraid of what might happen.  I’m afraid of what might not happen.

Who would have thought that exactly two years after my husband and I came to Italy on vacation we would be back in the same city, staying with the same brother at the same time of year, but with for the purpose of saving his life?

A month ago, he was complaining about being tired.  He thought he had dengue.  Two months ago he had a sore shoulder.  Three months ago we were getting up at dawn to go surfing.

Who would have thought life could unravel this far in two weeks?  I guess, really, all it needs is a minute.

How to Make Mistakes

Where I come from, girls learn how to play the piano.  If that sounds Victorian, well, now you know something about where I come from.  I don’t have much to show for the time I spent and the money my parents spent on that endeavor, but it wasn’t optional.  Every week, from 3rd grade to 8th, I went to piano lessons.  I liked playing the piano when I was allowed to play what I wanted–but most of the time my teachers made me practice boring exercises and songs I didn’t know.  So, even though I wasn’t a terrible piano player, I was pretty terrible student. At least that’s how I remember it 30-some years later.

The most important thing I learned at piano lessons, I learned from Mrs. Swan, the elderly lady who sat 12-year-old me in her dark living room at her doily-draped piano after school on Thursdays.  She made me play the most dreadful drills.

Another thing girls do, where I come from, is play the piano in church.  This is an honor and a privilege, and it is freaking terrifying because all the older girls who have been taking lessons longer than you have and can play without ever making mistakes will hear you if you mess up.  Everyone will say you did great and it doesn’t matter if you made a little mistake.  But still.  Even the preacher will hear you mess up.

So one Thursday afternoon, I was playing particularly badly for poor Mrs. Swan.  She seemed so discouraged by my lack of love for her lessons, that I confessed.  I had barely practiced my lesson at all that week.  I’d been asked to play the piano in church, and I was madly practicing… “Whispering Hope,” I think it was.  This relieved and delighted poor, discouraged Mrs. Swan.

“Play it for me,” she said.

I gingerly began picking out the notes, pausing where I was uncertain of my finger placement, not wanting to fail at this as well.  When I got to the end of the song, Mrs. Swan gave me a significant piece of life advise which I have called on many times and repeated often.  Whatever the words she used, the message was this:

“Don’t you be afraid to make mistakes.  You just play that song with all your heart, and if you make a mistake I want you to make a big, enthusiastic mistake that everyone can hear.  No little wimpy mistakes!

Something to that effect.  She told me to play it again.  So I played it again, loudly and confidently.  I made some loud, confident mistakes and I had to admit she was right—it sounded a lot better, mistakes and all.

Mrs. Swan isn’t living anymore–if she were she would be 100.  And I can’t play the piano to save my soul, but I know how to make a good mistake.  Big.  Loud.  Not fearfully or shamefully.  I’ve had lots of practice and I’m fabulous at it.

I actually hand myself Mrs. Swan’s advice quite frequently when I’m surfing—who knew that piano lessons could speak to that?  “Don’t worry about making a mistake,” I tell myself.  “Make a giant mistake.  Take the wipe-out of the day.”

I do.

Mixed with my rides, I get me some almighty wipe-outs.  I consider them a success in their own way.  Sometimes going all in is more important than what happens next.

 

Semana Santa

I love Semana Santa. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all. I love the chicharras. I love the air that’s too hot to breathe and smells like wood smoke from a fire in the mountains somewhere. I love the hazy stars. I love the badly-acted religious movies from 1970 that they play every year on TV. I love the maranones. I love the jocotes. I LOVE the rosquillas.

When I first came to Costa Rica as a student in 1991, the only time I got little case of Montezuma’s Revenge was because I ate too many rosquillas in Semana Santa. Gotta watch those little buggers with all that manteca. Talk about indigenous cooking. Ground corn, manteca, that hard salty smoked cheese, salt…am I forgetting something? Probably.  They don’t look that good. They don’t sound that good. And the first time I saw my host mother dump a handful of those odd little round biscuits into her tall glass of sweet black coffee? Bleagh! I thought in my innocence.

Oh silly me. Once you start on them, you can’t stop.

I love Semana Santa.  I love everything being closed in the middle of the week.  I love families sitting in the shade of trees in their yards. I love families playing with their fat little babies on the beach. I love drunk uncles lounging in the shade beside coolers full of cold drinks, tuna and soda crackers. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all.

It’s been a year since I’ve been back in Costa Rica, back home.  Immigration renewed my residence, considering me to have been a resident even during the time I was gone.  (I never thought an immigration document could make me almost burst into happy tears but when I read that, I had to take a deep breath.) I missed Semana Santa so much.  Not the chaos-at-the-beach part of Semana Santa–all the rest of it.  If you live in Costa Rica and you have no idea what I’m talking about, my sincere condolences.  There’s more to it than traffic jams at the coast.

They say every year on Sabado de Gloria, it rains.  And honestly, it usually does.  Maybe it’s the moon, this “Christian” holiday being situated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.   The monkeys are in the trees calling for rain.  The chicharras call for it.  The cenizaros don’t make a sound, but you can see them beckon if you watch.

I love Semana Santa.  I missed it so much.  Easter is a nice day, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Latin America knows how to celebrate a thing in a way that North America never will.  Sorry for all the grumpy gringos.

50 Different Words for Children

Who would like to join me in a toast to funny-shaped families: non-traditional, hard-to-explain combinations that don’t fit into a cookie-cutter no matter how you turn them?

Cheers!

. . . . .

The boys have grown into men and they roar up to my house on motorcycles. They peel of their helmets and pick me up off the ground when they hug me. When they were little and I was their dad’s wife, they didn’t call me mamá, but now they do even though I’ve been gone for much longer than I was there. You can divorce an adult, but the kids are another story.

I re-married and have a new set of step-kids who, unfortunately, live far away. My ex’s kids love my husband and he loves them right back, so when we get together it’s a very odd combination of laughter and pizza and reminiscing about things that not all of us remember. But it’s alright. You can open your heart to the people who want to love you, or you can close it.  Heads or tails.

But the language breaks down–all the ones I know do.  Here’s a question: What do I call my ex-husband’s daughter? If I call her my step-daughter, that confuses her with my husband’s daughter. And my husband has a daughter. He has a son, too, so what do I call the young men on the motorcycles? My ex-step-sons? That sounds terrible. Their dad is my ex—they are not any type of “ex” to me. Our relationship is very much in the present.

So here’s another one. What if my ex-step-daughter has a baby? Because she did. What do I call the baby? My ex-step granddaughter?? I’m laughing now. I’m a little annoyed with Webster’s lack of imagination. We don’t have a word for this. We need one.

I need one.

You know what I don’t like about the options my language gives me for naming children who aren’t mine? I don’t like identifying people who I consider family primarily by who they are not. Like calling the infant I hold in my arms my “ex-step-granddaughter.” That language removes her from me twice before giving her to me. It’s backwards. (And I would never call her that anyway, of course!)

The guy married to my sister is my brother-in-law. The woman married to my other sister is my sister-in-law. Those names give the relationship first and take it down a peg second. I like that order better. My sister’s wife is first my sister—and second, not-really-my-sister.

I guess the supposition is that when you divorce someone, the relationship is broken and the family is broken, so therefore the language identifies the break before it reflects anything else. I imagine that most times it is that way. I just wish we had a whole different word for it, is all, if you aren’t estranged. Like a language that has 50 different words for snow. I wish we had 50 different words for children. We have 3: kids, step-kids and grandkids.

Fail.

I especially dislike the vibe of the prefix “step” in front of family relationships. I accept it, but I don’t care for it. Tell the truth: what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “step-mother?” A wicked woman who won’t let pretty girls go to parties at best, and feeds them poisoned apples at worst. Please. Being a stepmother is wretchedly difficult, and no matter what you do, it will be the wrong thing in somebody’s opinion almost all the time.

I wish we had a word for my husband’s son that doesn’t start out by telling you that he doesn’t really belong to me. I wish I had a word for my grandbaby’s mama that doesn’t showcase what we are not.

Of course you are thinking, “Just say ‘daughter’ and ‘granddaughter’.” And I do, and I will.  I just feel the need to put my finger on a very personal place where language and life do not match up at all.

When I was college age, I used to say that I wasn’t sure whether or not I wanted to have children, but that I thought I would make an excellent grandmother.  I didn’t expect to pull that off, but look at me now.

And, dear English Language, please evolve.

 

italia