train robbers

The train was slowing down and we were preparing to get off. Eight looked around us in the draughty compartment by the door, studying this and that, his gaze snagging on a framed notice warning people to keep an eye on their luggage. It was a picture of a thief making off with a suitcase, its rightful owner in hot pursuit.

“Why do ladri wear those costumes?” he asked.

“What? Oh. Robbers? Why do robbers wear those masks?”

“Yes. They’re so stupid! They look even more suspicious that way!”


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the worst vacation of his life

finland-047The boys and I flew to Helsinki the day after Christmas. We rode the ferry to Tallinn, Estonia and back the next day, and the day after that we caught a plane to Ivalo in Lapland for a week without ever seeing the sun. It was a good trip and one that we had been planning for years.

The land north of the Arctic Circle was both very similar to and completely different from what I had expected. We quickly became accustomed to the darkness the way we quickly became accustomed to the snow, and the cold wasn’t hardly as cold as it feels at home in Italy, where the air is damp and the dampness chills your bones.

The Finns have a slow, quiet, almost expressionless way about them, a striking contrast to the Italians. They are deliberate in the way they do things and will not be rushed, so different from the slapdash Italian approach.

We went with a group of families and Eight, my younger son, was the youngest of all the kids, five boys and one teenage girl. It is not easy being the youngest, and more often than not he showed his age by tormenting the older boys until they gave him the attention he so craved, although it wasn’t always in the form he most desired. I was the lucky target of his frustrations, and I got to hear all about what a terrible time he was having since I was clearly trying to ruin all his fun with so many pointless rules and restrictions. “This is the worst vacation of my life!” was his mantra.

Eleven got on well with the other boys, and they divided their time between electronic games on their cell phones, climbing on the rooftops of Saami huts (until the Saami women ordered them down) and sledding in the dark.


We saw the Aurora Borealis three nights, but in general we weren’t very lucky with the weather conditions: it was mostly cloudy the nights we were there, and when it wasn’t, solar activity was low. “The pictures they show you are photoshopped,” was Eleven’s conclusion. We saw the most impressive lights just after ringing in the new year, when a pale green arc appeared in the sky above us and intensified, then broke into two long bands that waved and arched until they joined and faded away. Eleven turned off his headlamp and lay down on the snow to watch, but was unimpressed. “Yeah, I could see a little green, but when you compare the pictures in the ads to what you actually see, the pictures are way better.”

Luckily there were other exciting diversions that made the trip worthwhile. We checked out an ice hotel and went snowmobiling by night, we visited a reindeer farm and took a long, cold, heartstopping ride on sleds pulled through a picturesque Arctic landscape by teams of huskies. The Arctic Museum on the boundary of the Arctic Circle was another highlight, and we met the “real” Santa Claus at his home in Rovaniemi. Either Eight still believes or he suspended his disbelief to humor us.

finland-181If I were to go back in the winter, it would be to cross country ski on the trails in Finland’s national parks. The Arctic day offers three to four hours of pale blue twilight perfect for skiing, and a dark afternoon for rest. The parks have cabins where you can stay the night, giving you plenty of time away from the light pollution of towns and cities to see the Aurora Borealis.

Yesterday morning we got up at 5 am in Helsinki and headed back to the airport. On the plane, I was reading while Eight slept by my side, and halfway home to Italy, I felt something warm and bright on my cheek, the sun rising over the clouds. As much a miracle as the Northern Lights!


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Eleven, my eldest son, is a kind and caring, accommodating boy who aims to please the people he cares about. As his mother, it is a struggle not to take advantage of that. He is also clever and witty, makes quick, creative connections and arrives at spot-on conclusions. He has a good memory and a curious mind. It is a struggle not to burden him with unfair expectations and demands that he do well in school.

Middle school in Italy is challenging, which makes for a shocking transition from elementary. Add to this the fact that my son went from a relatively laid-back private elementary school directly to a public middle school known for being one of the tougher ones in our town. He loved his elementary school, adored his teacher for grades 1 through 5 (in Italy, students have the same teacher and the same classmates all five years) and came to know his classmates as well as if they had been his siblings. He had fun. He was happy.

I worried he would be unprepared for Italian middle school. His teacher didn’t teach cursive. She didn’t teach much grammar. Geography? He still doesn’t know much, if anything, about the regions of Italy. Could he find Rome on a map? I am not so sure. It seemed like they kept studying the same, few things, over and over again. There was very little work in his notebooks, but his grades were good and he was happy. What to do? I took him to see other schools, in particular a public school very close to our apartment with an excellent reputation for academics. I gently suggested he transfer. He listened patiently and calmly replied, “I am not changing schools. Promise me I can stay at my school until the end.”

As has happened before, now that he is in middle school, I see how pointless it was to worry.

Fine, yes, he was completely unprepared for the rigors of middle school. The first few weeks were fairly jolting for both of us – so much homework, so much studying, so much sternness and threats of punishment from the professori. While I understand their desire to send a clear message that middle school requires diligence and discipline and respect, it can at times seem like they see our offspring as little criminals.

There was a meeting last week at school with the professori. We went to the kids’ classroom and two or three teachers were there to tell us how terribly behaved our children are at school, how they don’t write down their assignments correctly – or at all – how they don’t study enough, how they don’t complete homework or listen attentively in class, how impossible it is to get them to quiet down. They told us to provide a specimen signature to prevent forgery on the part of our young delinquents.

There was a beautiful view of the London planes in the courtyard from the classroom, which felt slightly cramped, and the fluorescent lighting gave everyone a sickly, orange hue. My son, I thought, spends six hours a day inside this box. Thank god he had five years at a school he loved, with a sprawling, grassy playground and teachers who loved him. How wrong I was to worry! As it turned out, that was exactly the nourishment needed in preparation for the horrors of middle school.

Up until the meeting with the professori, I had wavered back and forth at home, putting too much pressure on him, then giving him some slack, losing my patience when he got distracted, hugging him and assuring him that it would get easier, then scolding him when he read comics instead of getting his homework done and then found himself, at 10pm, tired and with a page and a half long poem to paraphrase.

When he came home with a failed test on Italian verbs for me to sign, having left it almost completely blank, and the few verbs he did try to conjugate, he got wrong, he was sheepish, he was bummed, but there were no tears or despair. “It’s OK, Mommy. The professoressa said we will have another test next week and she will average the scores. I’m going to study a lot.”

Everyday he comes home for lunch and talks and talks and talks. Never has he told me so much about his life! Never have I been so privy to all the little episodes that he finds funny or interesting! His life must seem to him suddenly so much more exciting than it ever was before because he is bursting with anecdotes and news and everyday I can’t wait till he walks through the door and picks up where he left off.

We are close again the way we were when he was so very young and my only son. We are close and he is happy. If I were the mother I would like to be, I would leave it at that, and let him live his life as he best sees fit.

And still, I struggle. When will I ever learn?

A few days ago, I was in his room asking him about homework and tests, and I said, “I am just worried you won’t have enough time to do everything with basketball practice… maybe you should skip practice? Do you think you should skip practice?”

He looked at me with that deer in headlights look he gets sometimes and I said, “What are you thinking right now? Tell me the exact words in your head.”

He sighed.

“Tell me!” Tell your crazy, hysterical mother.

“I think you worry too much.”

“You want me not to worry about this?”


“Okay, you’re probably right. I’ll try not to worry.”


I’ll worry instead about worrying too much.

Posted in Italian school, The boys, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

running by the sea

Yesterday I did something special: the Venice marathon!

It had been a long time since I ran a marathon well; at least since 2014. All last year my left knee kept me from doing any real training, and in November it got so bad that my general practitioner ordered an MRI and the results got me on the fast track for surgery to scrape away a shredded meniscus. Oh, immediate, sweet relief! Had I only known I would have done it earlier!

I started rehab the very next day and by January I was running again. In hindsight I was probably doing too much too soon and on the last day of a particularly excessive week of running, I strained muscles in my other leg and had to take a break for months.

By the end of the summer I felt like I was finally back in decent shape again. My boyfriend had won a free entry in the Venice marathon and offered it to me. I said first I’d run our local half marathon in September and see how that went. If I finished in under an hour and forty minutes without wanting to die, I’d run Venice.

I just barely made that time, and then I said first I’d run a 20-mile training run and see how that went. If I finished well without wanting to die, I’d run Venice. He offered to watch the boys one Sunday morning so I could do the run, which it went well, better than expected, and at that point I had no more excuses.

So Venice it was. And ouch! I had forgotten how painful a marathon can be, HA!

Everyone always asks you what your goal time is and it’s hard to be honest with others, and even with yourself, because you don’t want to come up short (or long, in this case) and most people will usually add five to ten minutes to their actual goal time.When people asked me what I wanted my finish time to be, I said between 3h30 and 3h40 but what I really meant was as close to 3h30 as possible. I hadn’t trained specifically for this race, so I wasn’t completely sure what I could do, but I felt like my legs could maybe handle 3h30.

I found my pace and settled in within the first km, and everything felt good, except that I started thinking about all the miles ahead, and the long causeway to Venice, and that nasty bit around the port before you get to the nice part of Venice with all the cheering crowds, and all those damn bridges at the end. What was I thinking telling people I had hopes to finish in 3h30-40? I’d be lucky to finish in 3h45!

Not long after I realized there was only one way to find out, and I tucked back into my pace, tried to keep my legs and arms as loose as possible, and kept at it, peeling off one km at a time.

It went very well up until near the end when I hit those damn bridges. They put ramps on them, but still. There were fourteen bridges to cross this year in the last two km of the race, and by then your legs are so tired – your quads are tight and rigid and throngs of tourists and friends are screaming at the top of their lungs. The son of a woman from my team was in Piazza San Marco, half a mile from the finish, and shouted, “Jenny! Spacca tutto!” And I laughed.

Oh, what a joy it would have been to tear it up those last 1100 meters!!

My watch was clear: all I needed was to keep the same pace I’d kept for the previous 25.5 miles and I’d finish in an hour and 30, but alas, it was not to be. Those damn bridges!!! (They got me last time, too.)

I finished in three hours, 31 minutes and seven seconds, and that makes two marathons so far this year, with tentative plans to run a third.

I ran San Francisco for the second time this summer with my brother and we improved our time by four minutes. I ran Venice for the second time this fall and I improved my time by one. Pisa for the second time in December seems fitting. All three are marathons near the ocean or to the sea, and all three would be my second time on the course. It can’t hurt to try – or actually, it probably will hurt, but only for a few miles, and then it’s over.

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the update

Anyone reading must still have me in their feed and it’s either because they never took the time to delete this very quiet blog or because they never gave up on me, and if that’s the case, thank you!

I owe you an update, although not much has changed since I left off other than our ages (38, 11 and 7) and I’m no longer single. But sharing details of my kids’ personal lives here feels like an invasion of their privacy and sharing details of mine, well, ditto.

In general I have tried to avoid writing/talking publicly about my marriage and post-marriage love life. My ex and I have had an amicable separation and divorce and I didn’t want to spoil that. Also, the immediate aftermath was complicated and I was sad and confused for a year, or three. It was generous of me to spare you the tedium of so much navel gazing and gloom.

Through it all the boys and I were carrying on with school and work and the lifelong project of trying our best to be good people and to live a good life well.

And the years rolled by… it’s been 16 of them since I came to Northern Italy to live. Never have I been in one country so long, and when people here ask me where I’m from I say the name of our town and they laugh. It’s a joke. Ha ha! How can I explain that right now no other place feels like home?

All things considered, we like our life here. Sometimes a familiar restlessness creeps up inside me and that is when I fantasize about a new adventure somewhere else. I entertain the idea of moving to Spain or South America. More realistically, a couple of years ago, I was toying with the idea of spending a year with the boys in the States, but my ex said no. I tried some gentle persuasion, but he would not relent and as positive as I think that experience would have been for us (or would be if he ever changes his mind), I understand his view that it would be unfair. He has made huge sacrifices to remain a crucial part of our children’s lives and to help me raise them. Taking them away would be cruel. So I have decided to stick around a little longer.

My choice became less difficult last year when I fell in love with a wonderful man. What an exhilarating rush that was! A big surprise and so much fun! The first year it was all fireworks and endorphins and crazy lust, and now we are happily discovering that we actually genuinely like each other (and he my children) even without the onslaught of new love hormones.

Things are good. They are so good, in fact, that, except for an occasional bout of adventure-lust temporarily curable with a nice little trip someplace new, I wouldn’t want them any other way.

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middle school

After a long while of feeling no need to write in this forum, I began mentally composing a new post this week as the first of my two sons, Eleven, started Italian middle school.

This is our first experience with public school since we used a private school for elementary so my kids could continue on with their closest friends from preschool. Private school is a little paradise for parents, relatively affordable with lots of coddling, endless reassurance and special favors available upon request. Everyone is very nice to the children too.

So far public school has me a little bewildered. First the book ordering. Some of the mothers mentioned we had to order the kids’ books over the summer. Fine. How do we know which books to order? It turns out the school doesn’t tell you but the bookstores somehow know, and provide lists online. I decided to get a headstart and ordered all of Eleven’s books online in June, although the website said that some of them wouldn’t be available until later, but that I could “reserve” copies. When I got back from the States, a few still had not been delivered and the publishing date on a couple was September 23rd, 10 days after school started. This didn’t seem strange to any one but me.

The original store where I had ordered them emailed me last week to say they would not be able to deliver the last of his books and would cancel the remainder of our order, so I bought those books on Amazon. This week the original store emailed me a notice that they were sending me the same books. And of course that was the day I received them from Amazon. So I guess next year I will wait and order everything directly on Amazon. Live and learn.

Every day Eleven comes home with a list of materials he needs. Fortunately, he is smart and attentive and can explain to me what the difference is between a quadernone ad anelli and a quadernone like the kind he needed in elementary school. On Monday we went to the store together and I nearly had a minor breakdown. Yesterday was a little better, and today I just gave him some money and sent him on his own.

The actual school day is short this week. He only went three hours on Monday and gets out an hour early until next week when the regular schedule sets in, or probably. You never know here. There is no gym class this week because of the mosquito infestation in the brand new gym they finished building two years ago.

He had a substitute yesterday for the class they call “Technology” because the teacher “wasn’t there”. They had a substitute for French today for the same reason. The kids asked where these teachers were (“Still on vacation?”) but the substitutes would not say.

There is a teachers’ strike tomorrow. I read about it in the paper and but had no idea how it worked. The teachers never went on any strikes at the private school. I asked around and it was explained to me that you don’t know until the last minute whether there will be school or not. The kids go to school and if the first period teacher is there, they stay for the day, regardless of whether their other teachers are there; if the first period teacher is strikingthey return home. But there is no knowing much in advance.

Luckily, he is smart and eager and hopefully will learn something in all this confusion. So far he has great things to say about his Italian teacher. His Math teacher is OK and the English teacher, in his words, is “Italian. She said, ‘How slowly this computer!’ at the beginning of class, hahahah! So I don’t think she knows English very well. And I tried telling her how to pronounce my name. I told her twice but she didn’t get it, so I just gave up.”

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still here

breck moon 2015 004

We spent another peaceful summer in the Rockies and returned home happy and replenished from our five weeks there. I always dread leaving a little bit – it so beautiful and wholesome there; any place else seems tarnished in comparison – but then we get home and it feels right to be back. There may be no sky like the Great Western Sky, but if I go for a run in the hills five minutes from our little apartment and catch a glimpse of our city between the trees, and beyond the red tile roofs and church towers, there stand the first small Dolomites, I think hey, look at that, can you believe this is your home? A place as foreign and as beautiful as all that?

And in this way it often seems to me that I have managed to stitch together the best of many different worlds. Since this past winter the feeling that I am so fortunate to have this life, these boys, this family and these friends, these beautiful places to call home has grown and grown, and the only time I can remember ever feeling quite so content and quite so fortunate was at the tail end of winter 2011, when spring was budding in the green hills where we lived just outside this town.


How things change, how boys grow! How humbling to realize that the things I was so worried about, so sure would be the ruin of us all, turned out to be the very best part and what made everything else all worthwhile.

Posted in like anyone cares, picture taking, The boys, Travel | 8 Comments