Monday, August 18, 2014

36 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Northern Italy (Unless you live here)...

  A few weeks ago an article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed that was titled, "45 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Fort Worth". That, along with a comment from a friend (thank you Mark C.) got me to thinking about the things I've learned while living here and I realized that unless you do live here, there are a lot of things that might come as a surprise. I'm keeping my list limited to Northern Italy because Italian culture varies greatly depending on where you happen to be.  Before I begin my list I need to give credit where credit is due. We have a Facebook page dedicated to the company expats living here and I asked for help in coming up with this list. I only came up with about a dozen things and the rest came from my expat friends so a big thank you goes out to Gary, Jen, Russ, Carlene, Joann, and Sunny! You guys gave me so many great suggestions and I really appreciate it. So here are 36 things you probably didn't know about Northern Italy...

1. Driver's licenses are very difficult to get, even for Italians.

2. There are many rules but they are largely regarded as suggestions. That coupled with the difficulty in obtaining a driver's license might explain the crazy driving here.

3. The Polizia (local police) and Carabinieri (military police) don't need a reason to pull you over. Mostly they stand by the side of the road and hold out a round reflector (we call it getting lollypopped) if they want to stop you. There are many different penalties, everything from fines to getting your license or your car taken away if the offense is serious enough. They can fine you for something as trivial as not having your required safety vest and triangle in your glove box.

4. So you got lollypopped and receive a fine. Where do you go to pay it? Why the post office of course. While the Italian postal system isn't exactly reliable the post office does a booming business. You can go there to pay fines and utilities, receive paperwork for citizenship and even buy books and school supplies.

5. Stamps however are purchased from the local tobacco shops (called Tabacchi). You can also buy bus and subway tickets there.

6.Parking lots can be very confusing. There are a lot of barriers and one way signs and parking is extremely limited in some places. No worries though, most Italians make their own parking spots, even if it means their cars block some or most of the road.

7. Going somewhere? Better not be between the hours of 12:00-3:30 p.m. The majority of businesses still observe siesta and will likely be closed during those hours. The exception is usually grocery stores although some of those close as well. 

8. If you are going to a grocery store be sure you have a 1 euro coin so you can get a shopping cart. This is actually a better plan than most American supermarkets if you ask me. Return your cart to the corral and you get your money back. It keeps people from leaving their carts all over the parking lot. Also, bring your own bags unless you want to pay for them. 

9. Going somewhere in August? Better check to see if it's open. August is the holiday month for most Italians and it's not unusual for the majority of businesses to close for the entire month. This may also include gas stations although the self -serve pumps may still be open.

10. I hope you don't get thirsty when you find someplace that's open. Drinking fountains are nonexistent here.

11. But bars are everywhere, including in stores. Mostly they serve caffè, but it is sometimes possible to get a bottle of water. Just don't count on a cold drink with ice. Once in a very blue moon you can go to a fast-food place (McDonald's and Burger King are the only choices here) and get ice in your drink but it's only a few small cubes that melt in the first few minutes. 

12. Caffè is consumed at all hours of the day and by caffè, I mean espresso. It's very common after lunch and dinner as well as an afternoon pick-me-up. 

13. Cappuccino is usually served at breakfast. You can order it after 10 a.m. but they look at you really weird if you do. 

14. Care for a gelato? Italy has the best anywhere but flavors are seasonal so don't expect to get Mango in the winter.

15. Going out for dinner? Expect very limited choices. I've learned that Americans as a whole are spoiled when it comes to variety in restaurants. Here the choices are usually, pizza, pasta or hamburgers. You can also get steak or grilled chicken at some places.

16. Hope you're not hungry before 7 or 7:30 p.m. Most ristorantes don't open for dinner before then. 

17. Ordering a steak? Hope you like it medium-rare because that's the way you're getting it no matter how you order it. 

18. If bread is brought to your table before your meal arrives it will not be served with butter or olive oil. Most Italians eat bread during the meal and to sop up what's left on the plate. Do not expect it to be served with a little plate for dipping.

19. If you order a pizza don't expect it to be sliced. Pizzas are served whole and are eaten with a knife and fork.

20. If you like pepperoni pizza don't order one here or you'll get a pizza with peppers. The closest thing to what we think of is pepperoni here is salami picante and it will either be very mild or very hot.

21. Dogs are allowed everywhere, including restaurants.

22. After your food is brought to your table don't expect your waiter to return with a "how is everything?" or "does anyone need any refills?". If you need something you can flag your waiter down but other than that they will not return to your table until well after your meal is complete.

23. And don't expect to have a quick meal. Service us usually very slow as mealtime is looked upon as something to be savored and experienced. 

24. Speaking of slow, if you need something repaired or a service provided I hope you have plenty of time. They'll get to it when they get to it.

25. If you need a prescription for something go to the pharmacy. A lot of prescriptions can be purchased "over the counter" from the pharmacist.

26. If you need an over the counter drug like Tylenol (not sold by that name here) go to the pharmacy. You will not find it at the grocery store.

27. Shopping malls are very different here. If you're in a bigger city like Milan there are some similarities to American malls but most "malls" are just grocery stores with a few other stores and a bar attached.

28. The sales tax rate here is 23% and is added to pretty much anything you buy.

29. The price of gas is by the liter and is equivalent to paying around $9 a gallon.

30. Everything is more expensive here. The dental floss that I pay around $1 for at Walmart is 5 euros here. That's about $5.50!

31. While everything is more expensive, most things are smaller. For instance, my washing machine holds about 1/4 of the load my American one does.

32. Speaking of washing machines, most of them (including mine) are in the main bathroom.

33. My washing machine is also a "dryer". I put it on quotations because it doesn't work like the dryers in America. My clothes are usually pretty damp when I pull them out so I put them on drying racks and use a dehumidifier to complete the drying process. Not unusual at all around here. Most people don't even have dryers.

34. For all the emphasis the Italians put on cooking, most Italian kitchens are very small. 

35. Most refrigerators are very small which can make food storage a little challenging. I guess they make them that way to go into the small kitchens.

36. Italians love fresh food so they usually shop more than once a week. The food containers are smaller as well. We buy milk by the liter not the gallon which is a good thing since the gallon containers wouldn't fit in the small refrigerator which is in the small kitchen...

So there you have it. Thanks again for those of you who helped compile this list! These are the things that make living here interesting to say the least.
Arrivederci for now!

Friday, June 20, 2014

My Italian...Vacation?

  Last week at church I was speaking with another ex-pat and she expressed how hard it is to convince people who don't live here what it's really like. She said, "I was talking to one of my American friends and she asked me what it was like to be on vacation all the time." WHAT?? Are you kidding me?? Then I thought of some of the conversations I've had with friends back home and realized that there are people that seem to think the same thing about our situation. Hopefully this won't come across as mean but I really want to express what living here is, and what it isn't. 

  First, what it isn't: It isn't one long, extended vacation. Yes, I'll be the first to admit we live in a really beautiful place and it is much easier for us to go traveling around Europe than it is for the average American. How many people can say they can travel to Switzerland in under an hour or to Germany or France in three or four hours? And yes, we have taken some amazing trips. It's one of the advantages of living where we do but I want to make it clear that we do LIVE here. Mark goes to work every day, I clean the house, do the laundry, cook, run errands, grocery shop...all the responsibilities everyone else has. But we have the added stress of doing this in a country, culture and language that are not our own. Grocery shopping when you know the bare minimum of the language is interesting if nothing else. Trying to decipher food labels, brands you've never heard of, not to mention having to re-learn to cook without familiar things like Campbell's soup and Velveeta cheese, trying to learn all the Italian names for spices, making sure the meat you're buying is actually beef and not horse, having very limited choices on everything except pasta, olive oil and wine. Then there are the domestic duties. Doing laundry in a tiny little washer/dryer combo that does about 1/4 of the load my washer at home does. It only takes twice as long and then doesn't really dry the clothes so then I get to take the clothes out of the "dryer" and hang them up to dry completely which then requires ironing. Cooking in a tiny oven that required purchasing tiny pans to go in it. Being careful not to run the dishwasher, washing machine and air conditioner at the same time because it will cause the breaker to switch off. These are very real things and very stressful things.

  Second, it isn't (and I can't stress this enough) the long, romantic movie or television show that everyone seems to think it is. I can't tell you how many people have mentioned the movie, "Under the Tuscan Sun" to me. I understand if that has been your only exposure to Italy how you would think that living here would be like that but trust me, that's not the case. We do not spend our days at little sidewalk cafes chatting with locals and sipping wine. Other than our location, our lives are pretty ordinary. We have dinner and talk about our day, watch t.v., spend time Skyping with family, pretty much doing the things everyone else does. 

 And for what it is: Well, it is downright frustrating at times. All the roads with the exception of the highway are narrow, twisting, turning, curving, little country roads, surrounded by trees or buildings and it is impossible to get from point A to point B without a GPS and a lot of time. Someone asked me once how long it would take to get to our house from another house that we were visiting and I said about 20 or 25 minutes. It occurred to me later I should have told him it would only take only 5 minutes if he could drive it in a straight line! It took me almost a year to realize why I was exhausted every time we got in the car to go somewhere. With all the twists, curves, roundabouts, one way streets and zones that you cannot drive into, when you finally get to where you're going you realize you've been clinching your teeth and holding your breath for most of the drive! And let's not even mention Italian drivers...

 It can also be very confusing. Not just the grocery labels and the roads but trying to talk to people. Not knowing what to do or how to do it. Going shopping and not knowing if it's okay to just go try something on or if you need to ask. Being yelled at in a store for "taking pictures" with your phone when all you're actually doing is using your translator to decipher a label, and then not being able to communicate that you're just trying to translate the language. Not knowing the system for buying produce in the market. Being told one thing by someone and then told just the opposite by someone else. Being clueless when someone is trying to tell you something and you just can't understand what's being said. Trying your best to memorize words or phrases when you need to return something to the store and then praying nothing is said as a reply that you didn't look up. All of these things have happened to us. 

  It is sometimes lonely. I want to preface this by saying that we have met some really great people here. Not just the company folks but some wonderful people from church and some really nice locals. But they're not family and this isn't home. My sweet husband and I have an amazing relationship and we love being together but sometimes we just long for our family. 

  I want to make clear that I am not complaining about living here. I am convinced that God put us where we are and we are doing our best to live in His will. I am aware of how blessed I am and that not many people get this kind of opportunity. I just want people to understand that there is a great deal of difference between visiting someplace (or dreaming of visiting) and living in that same place. I also want to say that before we moved here I did my share of dreaming about what it would be like and I was totally wrong and unprepared! I did my best to prepare myself but it's a lot like trying to prepare yourself for marriage when you've never been married or having children when you've never had them. You know logically that problems will arise but you are totally unprepared for what it's really like. That was me. 

  Now, I know that I haven't communicated everything because that would take way to long and I know that I haven't convinced everybody. That's okay. I write this blog more to get my thoughts and feelings down than anything else. But hopefully I've helped people understand. And the next time someone mentions the words "vacation" or "Under the Tuscan Sun" to me I'll just smile and let them think what they want to think. Then I'll go do a load of laundry...


Monday, May 12, 2014

Our One Year Anniversary...

   I apologize for being so long in updating my blog. The winter months were very slow and dreary and I just didn't have a lot of energy. Basically, November till March in Northern Italy is cloudy and rainy and it zaps your desire to do much of anything. Waking up day after day to clouds is downright depressing! I don't know how people in Seattle stand it. Thank goodness for the Spring. The sun has been shining and everything is in bloom. Makes me very thankful to God for the change of season and the awakening of all things new, including my spirit! 

  With that being said, I've been thinking recently about our time here and I'm just amazed that we've been here almost a year! We arrived on the evening of May 31, 2013, completely exhausted, a little nervous and anxious to see what God had planned for us. 

  The first night was a blur. I remember going to bed and I think I remember my head hitting the pillow. Other than that the next 12 hours were spent unconscious! The following day a colleague of Mark's and his sweet wife came to our hotel to drive us around and acclimate us a little bit. I remember thinking, "Okay, that's enough. I'm ready to go home now!" 

  What a ride it's been since then! So far we've been to Milan, Lake Como, Lago Maggiore, Lago D'Orta,  Aosta, Pisa, Florence, Venice, Rome, Verona, The Italian Riviera, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and England. Not to mention the trips we have planned with friends and family who will be visiting this year. I'm overwhelmed at the thought of being able to visit so many wonderful places! It's just one of the ways God has blessed us since we came here, but there are so many other blessings...

  First off, I can't imagine how tough this would have been without other Americans to support us and show us the ropes. I'm thankful for all of Mark's colleagues and their spouses who have been so nice and generous with their time and advice. It's great to be around other people who understand exactly what you're going through. 

  Next is the love and support of an amazing church! When we found out we were going to be living here we began praying that God would lead us to other followers. Preferably English speakers but people who really love God and want to live the way He wants them to. Oh my goodness, did He ever deliver! We attend the International Church of Milan, an English speaking church with members from all over the world. Our pastor and his wife are passionate about God and following the Bible and I feel so blessed and privileged to be a part of this great church! As sad as I was to be leaving our home church I am now in awe of God and how He gives you what you need just when you need it! 

  Then there are all the resources and people that have helped us learn Italian. We have a language teacher who comes to our house once a week and she's been so patient, kind and laid back, even laughing with us when we make our mistakes! I count it as a gift from God that we have a teacher who meshes with our personalities so well. We still have a long way to go but we know enough to get along and we're learning more all the time. 

 And,I can't count the ways I've been blessed here without including some of the things I've learned about others and about myself. It is impossible to live in another culture without learning something about the people you live among. As in any culture around the world we have met people who are nice and some not so nice. But as a whole we've been treated very well with a lot of people working to accommodate us. Italians are very protective of each other and their culture but for the most part if they know you're trying to fit in and speak their language they're very kind and will try to help you. We've experienced everything from people showing us how to pay at gas stations to people correcting our Italian. I have been very grateful for all these people!

 As for what I've learned about myself...well, I don't think I've got time or room for everything so I'll just list a few. The first is patience. Nothing gets done quickly in Italy. Nothing. Really. Nothing! If you're going to live here you may just as well learn to cool your heels! Not that I was an impatient person before but I've learned a whole new definition of it here! 

  Next, dependence. I have always been a very independent person, so much so that it's sometimes been a prideful thing. I definitely like to do things for myself. Here, I don't have a choice other than to be dependent. Only having one car means I either rely on my husband or others to take me where I need to go, run errands for me or wait until I can get the car so I can go somewhere. For the most part I'm stranded. Not a problem as I have learned to keep very busy at home. I have also learned to savor my solitude and I love having time to paint!

  And finally...humility. Maybe it comes from being very independent but I really don't like appearing foolish. I don't know anyone who does, really. Living here or anyplace where the language and culture differ from your own you are going to feel foolish at times. There is no way around it. Some of it may be self-imposed because it's very easy to feel conspicuous when you know very little culture and language. Some of it is not knowing how to do something or say something correctly. We've been embarrassed more than once but we also are much more empathetic towards people who don't quite fit in. It kind of teaches you to look for people who need help. 

  So when I receive comments from people about how blessed my life is I tend to look at it a little differently than they may mean it. I hope that when people make those comments, they can see more than just the surface. I know I'm not done learning yet and that's both exciting and a little frightening. There are so many things I never expected from this experience and these lessons are just part of it. But I know that whatever else comes my way, good or bad, God is God and he will work things out for my good. And that's the ultimate blessing!

  Arrivederci Amici!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

My First Home Leave...

   Recently, I looked up the definition of the word "home". Most dictionaries use terms like "house, apartment, shelter or dwelling place". I also found "any place of residence or refuge" and "a person's native place or own country". But the one I like best is this one: The place in which one's domestic affections are centered.

  I was curious about the definition because all through November and the first part of December all I could think about was going "home". I spent the week before I went making lists, doing laundry, cleaning house and packing. Most of all I couldn't wait to see my parents and my kids. 

  Like a lot of other people I know, I tend to build things up in my mind that the reality can never live up to. I have done this countless times and I'm almost always let down. I'm happy to say that did not happen on this trip. Yes, we had some issues we had to take care of; a plumber had to be called for a problem with the kitchen faucet and an a/c repairman came to fix our compressor. We had doctors appointments and some other necessities to take care of, but being in our house with our family and seeing our friends was all I had hoped it would be. I knew the time would fly by but we did our best to savor every minute we had. 

  We also got to do a lot of things that are much harder to do in Italy and some that are not possible to do there. We saw 4 of the 5 movies I wanted to see (Mark is the movie lover in our family and would have seen many more than 5 if time had allowed). We ate out at most of our favorite restaurants (as the 4 pounds I gained can attest to), and we shopped in some of our favorite stores (as my 66.5 pound suitcase confirmed).

  But as much fun as all of these things were, as I get older I appreciate more and more the time spent with the people I love. My only regret for this trip was that because of time, distance or circumstances we weren't able to see everyone we wanted to see. Sometimes one month just isn't enough. 

  That's where the definition of "home" comes in. As we neared our time to return to Italy we kept using the phrase, "when we go home." There's part of me that doesn't want to think of Italy as home. It's not where our family is. Yes, we have made friends that live here but the friends I've known for years are still in the States. But the definition: The place in which one's domestic affections are centered, really got me thinking. Right now Italy is that place. My husband, whom I am blessed enough to call my best friend, lives here with me. I have a house with belongings that I either brought with me from America or that I chose especially for the space. I love to cook, paint, read and spend time with my friends here. So yes, this is my home. The place that currently holds my "domestic affections".

  Which means I have 3 homes. One in Texas, one in Italy and a future one in Heaven! I am overwhelmed with blessings! What makes all 3 homes so wonderful is I get to share them with people I love. Sometimes it's the people I live with, sometimes it's the people who visit and sometimes it's both. I am very excited to think about the friends and family from the U.S who are coming to visit us in Italy this year. I not only get to spend that time with them but I get to experience some amazing adventures with them! The same thing can be said of the friends we have living here with us. 

  I'm obviously not as confident living here as I am in the States. Honestly, I doubt I ever will be. I may learn enough of the language to get by but I'm never going to master it. The driving here will always make me nervous. I'm not going to be able to buy everything I want in the stores and some of the cultural differences will always baffle me.  But years from now when I look back on living in Italy, it's the people I'm sharing it with and the things I love doing that will make me say, "What a great place that was to call home!"

 Arrivederci for now!