Friday, May 31, 2013

Aghast at American allergies abroad

I almost made it through an entire year untouched by my foul nemesis, the sinus infection.

Once I was plagued by the bacterial beast almost ever month, but then I discovered that the magic of a daily neti pot could hold it at bay.

I stopped using the neti pot here because the water has so much calcium, that while it is safe to drink (and undoubtedly safe to pour through my nasal cavity once a day) I've seen what it does to our faucets and my hair and decided the best way to use the water for  the neti pot was to heat it by boiling filtered water. Which took a long time because we don't have a microwave. And then it took a long time to cool down because I would forget to remove it from the heat until the tea kettle started screaming. And by the time I could use it, it was ice cold and needed to be reheated. plus, I ran out of the premixed packs and making my own salt combo which stings and is much more reminiscent of inadvertently  getting smacked in the face by  a wave and  thus swallowing a ton of sea water.

And so I eventually let my neti pot intentions fade away.

It  has pretty much been fine. All the allergies for which I have tested positive ( and that would be every single thing they test for save for horses, dogs and cockroaches for those of you who haven't heard this tale of woe), seemed to not be an issue here. Maybe because it's a city, not the country? Maybe because we have a wonderful person who dusts? Maybe because my overactive immune system  didn't know to freak out when encountering  the Italian version of all trees, grasses, molds,etc? And so even my use of allergy medicine was able to become an occasional thing.

 Just another benefit of living in Italy, thought I.  My allergies have all but disappeared.

And then, then spring hit. I have never been in Italy in the spring. Pollen hovers in the air like swarms of gnats. It covers every surface. And I could apply no defense. I could not keep our doors and windows closed and turn on the air conditioning. I could not stop hanging out our clothes and instead use a dryer. I could not avoid being outside when the pollen count was at its highest.

But even so, I was holding my own in the battle against the pollen until I went on the three day field trip with my dear son's elementary school. We spent our days hiking in  the pollen and nights sleeping in a hotel on the beach. Which was very "beachy" in that I could smell the mold lurking in every crevice. And it was hot. Really really hot. Without air conditioning it was going to be a very moldy, pollen-y, mosquito-y field trip for us all.

"Please turn on the air conditioning, " I begged the woman at the front desk, " we are sweltering." The woman looked at me blankly (pesky language barrier) and so I fanned myself and pointed upstairs. "Caldo, "I said, "molto caldo!"

She looked as incredulous as if I'd insisted there was a unicorn in my shower and followed me to the third floor where a dozen sweaty faces of the children of whom I was in charge peered at her hopefully, hair plastered to their foreheads. I demonstrated that the air conditioning didn't work. She told me it was much too cold to turn on the air conditioning, and wrapped her sweater more tightly around her to demonstrate.

I turned to one of the native Italian boys in the class and asked him to tell her that it was too hot up here and we needed the air conditioning. He translated, each word punctuated by a drop of sweat rolling down his nose and onto his t-shirt. I had been certain that the plea of a child would be heard, but the woman responded to him quickly, smiled so widely I could se her fancy gold tooth, and descended down the stairs. I had caught enough of what she had said to know it was all over before Lorenzo translated for me: "She said it's too cold to turn on the air conditioning and the hotel won't turn it on this early in the year."

Luckily the kids were so over-stimulated and over-tired (awesome combo--cue the fights and tears that turn quickly to laughter and high fives) that heat was the last of their worries, although several had eyes that nearly swelled shut due to the pollen forming Santa beards upon their faces.

And so by the time we returned to Rome, my body was in full panic mode and completely ignored my cold compresses and allergy medication and surgical mask and Purell and Hazmat suit, every lymph node swollen, throat closing, lungs wheezing.

And now it all that excess stuff has settled down, finding a comfy niche in my sinus cavities where it can relax and make itself at home.

And so today I have to go to the doctor. And I'm feeling as apprehensive as a kid scared to get their hair cut or go to the dentist for the first time. (Are kids really scared of those things? Or is that just a myth from the land of movies and Tee Vee? Because I don't know any who were.)

Ugh to the ugh. Wish me luck. Wish me a parking space right out front. Wish me a doctor with perfect English. Wish me a receptionist who has worked extensively with our insurance plan.

To add insult to injury, we had gone shopping at  Eataly. Where they have every single type of my favorite brand of micro brew beer in Europe:  Brew Dog, a beer from Scotland. So I have all these lovely beers just begging to be poured into a frosted glass and I can't even look at them for fear of my body overreacting to the histamines.  Plus, I can't taste anything. And the thought of drinking a beer makes me want to gag just a bit. But do you know what? That beer is not going to drink itself! It needs me. Must get well soon.

* disclaimer: I'm sick. I have no idea what kind of bizarre typos I've made. Just roll with it. Thank you.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013


Each time I think that we have surely seen the most beautiful place in Italy (and thus the most beautiful place in the world--hey, it's not bias if it's just a plain 'ol fact), Italy ups the ante with yet another gem.

This time it was Positano. I have heard people moan that Positano is so touristy. And to them I ask: "Um, have you seen it?" When places are "touristy", it's generally because they are AWESOME. Like Positano. It's so dang pretty it will make your teeth hurt. And if you get a chance to stop on one of the horrifyingly curvy  mountain roads for a  granita al limone, you should absolutely do it. Because it rocks. (Almost a pun.)

Paestum and Velia

around Rome

"'The time has come,' the Walrus said, 'To speak of many things.:'"

Soon I will be kissing Rome upon the right cheek and the left as I return to America for the summer. And while I will be happy to join the Italians who flee the heat and the hordes for Ferragosto, I am hoping that I am able to bring much of my Italian life to the U.S.

I want to continue to live slowly. It can sometimes take an entire day to complete just one task and for me, this translates to a much nicer pace. I arrived here as a person who multi-tasks to the point that I often get nothing done but still have an oppressive need to try and do even more. And with that marvelous clarity of hindsight, I no longer recall what I was spending so much time doing, leading me to suspect that I wasn't really doing anything. I don't have to rush and rush and rush some more on my hamster wheel. I want to stay in the present and refuse to feel guilty for sitting on the  balcony and watch people pretend to pick-up after their dogs. I want to sit and do nothing but notice the color of the underside of a leaf as the wind blows.

 I want to continue to exercise without realizing that I am. I haven't had access to a gym for nearly a year and yet I work out every day. I walk for miles. I climb six flights of stairs every time I leave the house. I have to pause when I unfurl the canopies on our balconies because my arms burn in a way that I can't achieve by lifting weights. I am in constant purposeful motion. Like a farmer. Or the Amish. Or my friend Shelly.

I want to continue to live in a consumer vacuum. (Consumerless vacuum?) Because I have little to no access to advertisements, I don't know what the latest, greatest, bestest, must-have products are. And even if I did, I have no way of obtaining them here. And even if I could, I have no place to put them. And so I have gone from someone with an obsessive need to pop into Target at least once a day um, occasionally, to someone who pretty much has no idea what I am living without.

I want to shop the little roadside stands and farmers markets, or at the very least, the outer ring at the grocery store. Because prepared foods here are few and far between. And the time it takes to prepare everything from scratch more than pays for itself in flavor.

And combining all of the above: I can't believe what I live without and yet do not miss. We've been in Rome for a year and we just bought a vacuum cleaner. (And Holy Guacamole does that thing make cleaning the floor easier!)We are like Gilligan's Island here: no clothes dryer, no toaster, no microwave, no dishwasher, no ice maker, no food processor, no electric mixer, no phone, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury, like Robinson Crusoe, it's primitive as can be. Yet somehow, this all contributes to our slower-paced, more relaxed life. I'm not claiming that everyone here lives without these things; I'm just saying that we do and I am pleasantly surprised at how little it matters.

I want to bring to America the part of me that I have developed here: the part that manages to live in a country where I can't speak the language (and yes, learning Italian is my number one priority when I return in the fall); the part that can start lane number three on a one-lane road while driving; the part that can walk up to strangers puzzling over their bigliettis on the metro and offer to help; the part that is bigger and braver and stronger than I could have ever guessed.

I want to extend myself like the Italians I encounter. I want to remember to go out of my way to help people who are struggling to speak and/or read English. I want to be the person (this part will obviously be metaphoric) who leaves their shop unattended to walk a stranger to the corner in order to give better directions. Because I have been the recipient of so many random acts of kindness that it makes my throat tight with gratitude just to think of it.

I want to keep the TV turned off (unless The Walking Dead is having a special summer season). I don't miss the mindless, inane shows that  I used to have on as background noise.  I have discovered how much I enjoy listening to music or podcasts of This American Life or the sounds of the neighborhood around me while I chop vegetables. I want to remember that so many things just don't matter. Long lines and traffic and inefficiency is a way of life here and you either accept it or go mad.

For instance:

 In the U.S., I  always used the self check-out line because the slowness of the cashier and incorrect bagging of the official grocery bagger ( Cold goes with cold! Heavy things go on the bottom! Don't mess up my stuff--I have it sorted by cabinet!) could make my blood pulse with annoyance.  And here? First of all, no one is going to bag your groceries, so I had to get off my high horse right there.  And no excuses for forgetting my cloth bags because you will have to buy every single plastic bag you didn't bring into the store. And is it too much of a bother to return your cart to the store? Is there not a place in the parking lot to half-heartedly push your cart near? Is it raining? Oh poor me. One, there are no parking lots. Two, you "rent" your grocery cart here, so if you want back that euro, you'd better return that cart. Three, it's a city. I had to accept that I don't have the luxury of being annoyed about the weather. I walk the same amount of miles in the rain or I can't leave my house.

The lone cashier at the store sits on a stool behind the counter and talks at length with a customer despite the line of 27 people waiting to check out. And if anyone cares, I certainly can't tell. It's common practice that no matter how long the line, you can put your basket of goods down to hold your place and no one will argue. In fact, chances are high that they will insist you return to your former spot even if you leave the line to grab something you forgot. And if you have been waiting for 32 minutes and finally it is your turn in line but someone appears with only a couple of items, of course you let that person go before you. Because that is the way it is. I've learned to let go and not only accept it, but to embrace it. It's a nice way to live and I am grateful to experience it. I no longer am annoyed that places are closed for several hours in the middle of the day. Because it's pretty awesome to live in a culture that values time over money. Because by extension, this way of life means that the whole family walks to my son's bus stop in the morning and we all sit down to eat dinner together every single night and my husband no longer has to bring his laptop on vacations or drop everything to go to work on a Saturday afternoon. We have the gift of time. And until we had it, I didn't realize how much we were missing it.

Some of things I will miss are things that I can't bring with me, but I appreciate nonetheless. Even if it sometimes makes my eardrums ring, I love that the Italians hold children in such high regard that their happiness takes precedence over everything.  I love that all children are met with a "Ciao bello/a!" The first concert at my son's school still says it all: a child was screeching so loudly that the performance couldn't be heard and all the ex-pats (myself included) looking around in annoyance, waiting for the child's parents to take him out of the room. And yet the Italians were clucking in loving sympathy and murmuring to each other about the poor child who must be so hungry from having to sit still for so long. We were silently begging someone to come and remove the noise from our presence and they were begging someone to let the poor suffering boy run around untethered or give him a cookie.

I like that I feel safe here. Rumor has it that the only place in America with as low a crime rate as Rome is Plano, Texas. Yes, there are pickpockets and non-violent crimes, but I can walk around freely without being harassed or feel like I need pepper spray to take the dogs out at night. I don't have to cross the street in hopes of avoiding hostile people.  I like reading the newspaper and not tripping over stories of violence against children or animals. I like that life here is filled with occurrences  like teenage boys stopping to help an elderly person in need, or the most unexpected people offering their seats to pregnant women on the metro.

With all this love for Italy flowing over me, what makes me excited to return to the States? The obvious of course is all the people that I love who live there. FaceTime and e-mail and texting are Godsends for remaining a part of each other's lives, but nothing compares to actually being together with my family and family of friends. I have a nephew who was born just as I was returning to Rome after Christmas and I can't wait to hear him giggle and smell his sweet baby head.

And books! I can't wait for real books. I always swore that as long as there was someone still publishing books on paper, I would never use an electronic device to read. Living where accessing books in English is next to impossible, I have caved. But that hasn't diminished my love for Real Books and my disdain for the coldness of e-books. So far, I have read 78 books while living here, and out of that, only three are tangible items sitting on our bookshelves.  I wish I had each and every one stacked here in their natural state, ready to be picked-up and re-read at any time.

And I'm not going to lie: I'm psyched to cart around a giant take-out iced coffee from Starbucks rather than stand at a counter downing a short of espresso.   Or have more than two choices of yogurt flavors at the grocery store. Or not have to calculate recipes from the imperial to metric system or the temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius. Or know exactly what o.t.c. medicine I'm purchasing at the drugstore. And the smoking laws! I can't wait to live where smoking is illegal and shameful and I don't have to smell it or breathe it or remove an ashtray from my table. And oh, driving on country back roads and see lightening bugs twinkling like tiny fairies in the corn and have cook-outs and roast marshmallows over fire pits; I look forward to it all. And it will be awesome to finally get the dog hair off our socks and not have to iron everything because I'm using a clothes dryer.

But the towels? The rough, sun-dried towels that seem to absorb the water so much better than those fluffed in a clothes dryer? The towels I'm still hanging out to dry and kicking it Italian style.