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Aboard Delta Flight 237, July 2, 2012

Eli, Nell, and Seth have all written about their feelings on our departure from Rome. I’ve found this difficult to write about. The past few weeks have been so packed with events and emotions that it’s been hard to pinpoint my thoughts and feelings. In many ways, our year abroad was the culmination of travel plans I made back in 1989 – an intended junior year abroad in Florence that I had to cancel due to family illness. The culmination of such a long history of hopes and expectations is hard to encapsulate in words.

But there’s nothing like a ten hour flight to provide the mental space I need.

In truth, it’s fitting that I should write our final blog post (number 104!). Last spring, when we were planning our trip, I suggested we keep a family blog about our year in Rome. Initially, we thought that it would be a great way to stay in touch with family and friends back home and elsewhere. And it seemed like a great format for the kids to learn a new way to express themselves in writing.

But in the end, we’ve found ourselves writing more for ourselves than anything else. The blog has become our journal, with words and images that we want to remember, and I believe that these pages will help keep this year alive for us in years to come.

Our final days in Rome were bittersweet. As Nell wrote in her recent post, we don’t really feel like we are saying goodbye to the city and our friends here, because we know we will be back. Two different Roman expat friends, who have seen many short-term visitors come and go, affirmed this for us, telling us that they believe that we are one of those families that really truly will be back early and often. That makes everything feel a lot easier, though it has not precluded tears from all of us. And we did have some especially sad goodbyes that were most likely forever, including our wonderful housekeeper Maria, who is moving back to Romania. Though Maria has invited us to visit her in Romania, so who knows?

It has been quite a week. Since our return from Toscana on Wednesday, we have cheered Italy in the EuroCup (a tremendous win in the semis and a trouncing in the finals). We have enjoyed lovely goodbye dinners, including a fantastic meal hosted by our friends Shannon and Matthew, carry-in pizza on the terrace with Shannon, Matthew, Andrew, and their kids that was accompanied by a fireworks show at Castel St-Angelo, and Pizzerium pizza on our terrace followed by I Mannari gelato brought by Hisham, Maria, Laith, and Aden.

We’ve also treated ourselves to several great meals out. All year, the kids have heard us raving about the restaurant Roscioli (see Restaurant post). Nell was especially excited to go because they are famous for their tagliolini cacio e pepe, her favorite Roman dish (pasta with a deceptively simple sauce made from sheep cheese and pepper  – basically, Roman comfort food). She loved it – but adored her gorgeous caprese salad even more. Eli, true to form, enjoyed one last great steak. And for our last lunch on Saturday we went to Cantina Cantinari, the little restaurant serving food from the Le Marche regione, which we first tried last August when Robert and Virginia visited from Montreal. I was craving one last seafood fix before heading to the Midwest, and it was perfect, followed by a gelato at I Caruso.

We awoke Sunday (yesterday) to the news that our flight was delayed by 6 hours, ruining our Detroit connection. This was a stroke of luck, in fact, because we were able to rebook for today, allowing us to watch the EuroCup final in Italy. Our landlords, ever generous, let us stay in the apartment, and we treated ourselves to a second last lunch, this time at our favorite Sicilian restaurant. And we had the opportunity to enjoy one last gelato at Il Gelato, which our beloved Rocco wouldn’t let us pay for.

In a journal article or book, it’s customary to end with an Acknowledgments section. As that is the style of writing I know best, here goes.

First, the Romans. Thank you for teaching us that even when things don’t work quite right (or at all), everything still works out okay. Thank you for helping us to see that we don’t need to always be rushing around, or stressing out about being on time (okay, that is one that will be hard to avoid in the Midwest). Thank you for tolerating our weak Italian, correcting us gently (my favorite was when I tried to order lamb and the server laughingly told me that I’d just ordered a hug). Your warmth, hospitality, and generosity are world-class, along with your food, sights, light, colors, and history.

Second, all of our new friends. In a city like Rome, foreigners are always coming and going. For the kids and parents at our international school, expats and Italians alike, it is commonplace for children to make dear friends and then have those friends depart – and for their parents to do the same. Thank you all for opening up your lives to all four of us, despite our lack of longevity in the city. You all made this year especially meaningful and enriched for us. You’ll be seeing us again soon!

Third, our jobs. We are so fortunate to have careers that afforded us the flexibility to travel abroad for a year. And we are equally fortunate to have colleagues who not only helped to pick up the slack, but who so warmly cheered us on. We are excited to see you again over the next few weeks!

Fourth, our students.  From dissertation defenses where our Skype connections failed, to meetings with us when it was late at night Rome time and Seth or I were clearly not at our best… you were all troupers, and we are so looking forward to being in the same time zone with you. We truly can’t thank you enough for being so patient, and we fervently hope that sabbaticals still exist by the time you are professors!

Fifth, our family and friends ‘back home’. So many of you have made such a great effort to stay in touch with us: emailing, Skyping, commenting on the blog or on Facebook, sending snail mail, and visiting! It makes our homecoming so much easier to contemplate – we are so excited to see you!

Sixth, I want to thank my parents. My mom always loved Italy; it was a place that was very special to her. Long before I ever came to Italy, I loved it through her eyes. And though I was never able to travel to Italy with my mom, I thought of her and my dad every day as I soaked up the winter sunshine on our terrace. They would have really enjoyed watching us love this year. Seth’s mom, and our grandmothers Rosie and Sara, would have too.

Finally, I want to thank Seth, Eli, and Nell. I would never have been brave enough to pick up our family and move to Rome if it weren’t for Seth. He is not intimidated by travel… He loves the challenge of navigating new languages and cultures, and cultivating new friendships. I was inspired by his all-encompassing embracing of our year away. And the kids were the best travel companions imaginable, in every possible way. At the end of her family’s sabbatical last year, my friend Stacy described their family as having become a well-oiled machine. I know exactly what she means.

I don’t think we will know what this year really meant to us for a long time to come. Last night, Eli said that maybe he’d take a gap year or a year abroad in college in Rome, meet someone, and get married and move to Rome. That sounds like a good idea to me.

– Jenny

One of our motivations for maintaining a blog this year was that we benefitted so much from reading the blogs of other families who had spent a sabbatical year abroad. We felt a need to return the favor.

In writing these reflections, we acknowledge that we were atypical in that we began planning this sabbatical many years before we actually took it. Also unusual about our experience was that we decided to dis-save this year (sorry, college and retirement funds), and use whatever financial resources we could to make things go smoothly. Part of that reflected that we had been saving since our last sabbatical, seven years ago, to have a financial cushion for this year. But part of it also reflected our belief that anything that helped ease us into the year, prevent stress, and avoid tearful evenings during our limited time away, was a wise investment.

1. Because we could, we took a full year. Often there are hard constraints on the length of a sabbatical—what percent salary cut a family can afford, spouses’ jobs, cost of living, etc. But if it is feasible, we are strong advocates of making the move for a full year. We have met many families this year that originally planned half-year visits, and they all regretted not planning a full year. It often takes several months for children to settle in, make friends, find favorite restaurants, feel like their room is their own. Second, it takes time for children to become sufficiently integrated that they do not feel like the “new kid.” It also takes adults a while to really find the people who end up clicking as family friends. Our observations are that children end up having a lot more fun when they attend a regular school or day care program with peers during a year away (as opposed to staying with parents all day). It provides an entrée into a new culture that wouldn’t otherwise be available to a visiting family. Best of all, because of an odd legal loophole, people paid in US dollars who stay outside of the United States for over 330 days do not have to pay any federal income tax!! That has helped make this year much more financially feasible for us.

2. We started language/culture exposure early. A year and a half before moving to Rome, we signed the children up for a very casual Saturday morning Italian class. They really enjoyed the games and food. The point wasn’t to learn much Italian—in fact, our kids left the US overconfident about their abilities. But that was the real benefit of the class. With all the worry they had about leaving their friends and arriving at a new school, one thing they were not worried about was communicating in a different language. This alleviated a great deal of worry for them and made the transition much easier. It is true that once we arrived, they realized how difficult it is to communicate in a non-native language. But at least they were familiar with the sounds, could greet people and introduce themselves, order food in restaurants, say please and thank you, and answer simple questions from friendly adults. All of this helped them a lot socially. At the very least, it is good to arrive knowing how to introduce oneself and say “Can I play, too?”

3. Think about the stuff. Packing up one’s house is a tricky maneuver. On the one hand it is good to get things cleaned out early, especially if someone else will be living in your house. We were very glad that we did not wait until the last minute. It was easier for our children to leave their bedrooms when those rooms were no longer filled with cozy memories; starting to pack things up many weeks in advance helped them slowly adjust to leaving. Still, packing up a house can also be distressing for kids and bring up a lot of anxieties about the upcoming move. Here, we tried an experiment that ended up working very well for us. We slowly started to pack the children’s rooms up removing a few items every weekend and filling separate boxes in the attic with items to be saved versus given away. For each child, we made a box for keepsakes with large labels that read “Eli’s Special Things” and “Nell’s Special Things.” One day, Eli came to us very, very upset because he couldn’t find something that was important to him in his room. We took him to the attic and showed him the box, and he stared at it, and dug around looking at his favorite stuff all tucked away. He felt extremely satisfied. Then, about a week later, Nell was in tears believing that we had thrown away one of her beloved stuffed animals. Eli turned to her and, in a very reassuring and upbeat voice, told her not to worry. “In the attic we each have a box where our special things are protected,” he told her happily, “it even says “Nell’s Special Things.’” Then he took her upstairs to confirm that her favorite belongings were safe and would be here when we returned. Everyone lived happily ever after, and not another word was spoken about stuff that would not accompany us to Italy.

4. Given our children’s ages, we tried to make the destination concrete. This is an expensive undertaking that is not always feasible. But a year before moving to Rome, we visited over the children’s spring break. We looked at neighborhoods and schools, saw some sights, and ate a lot of gelato… We thought that the kids might be less anxious if they could concretely picture things like the school playground or have some memories of parts of the city, making it seem more familiar. Indeed, that seemed to work.

5. To help promote buy-in, we gave the kids some choices. Many families that we have met this year at our kids’ international school have been struggling with children who are not happy about having been forced to move. At the beginning of the school year, the elementary school principal met with the parents of all of the new kids. As the daughter of a diplomat, who had to move a lot herself as a child, she had great insights. One of the things she told the group of parents was really helpful. She reminded the adults that we had chosen jobs that we loved that involved international travel, we were advancing our own careers by opting to spend a year in another place, we were fulfilling our dreams of living in Italy, or we had finally gotten that sabbatical we so wanted. And even though as parents we told ourselves about all of the benefits that this experience would confer for our children, these were still OUR dreams and fantasies, not what our kids had signed up for. She reminded parents to chill out, be patient, and not be surprised if our children are less excited about it all than their parents.

We had thought about this type of issue a bit before leaving Madison.  While the option of going away on sabbatical wasn’t up for a vote, we tried to think of constrained choices to give the kids to give them some sense of control over what was happening. For example, we narrowed the list of possible schools down to ones we liked, and let the children provide input into the final decision. That sense of ownership actually helped a lot. If there was one thing the kids LOVED about this year, it was their school. We gave the kids some choices about our home, allowing them to help pick the final apartment once we had narrowed it down to two choices we liked, and allowed them to choose their sleeping configuration (they had really wanted to share a bedroom this year, probably for comfort). We each brought one large suitcase for the year, and we gave the kids a lot of latitude about what they chose to put in their own bag. First we helped them make a pile of everything that they ideally would want, and worked with them to make sure they made good choices that fit (and ensured that they would have some underwear!). We advised, but their own hands took stuff out of the pile of things to be packed and into the storage bins. There were no tears while packing.

Since we had chosen our sabbatical destination, the kids asked if they could choose some of our trips. So we allowed each of them to select a destination for their birthdays, and their Fall Break destination. We had planned on London, but they really wanted to go to Paris for the entire break rather than travel around. So we showed them how to peruse travel web sites and let them set our activities. It worked out really well, especially since it was a destination that we already knew well as parents. They really enjoyed both the trip and the feeling of being in the driver’s seat. For other cities, we found more limited ways to help them feel involved, such as selecting hotels once we had made a short list, or rank-ordering restaurants we might try to visit based on recommendations by food bloggers.

We think activities like this gave them some authorship over the year. Admittedly, this might be too child-centric for some people’s parenting tastes. But we considered it to be in our own self-interest.

6. We laid the groundwork for a smooth landing. This was another expensive decision, but a good investment. About a month before we moved, Seth made a two-day trip to Rome as an add-on to a conference trip. During that time, he set up infrastructure. He opened our bank account, set up our cell phones, applied for annual metro cards, mapped the route to the children’s school bus stop, found the nearest grocery store to our home, turned on utilities, internet, etc. He took pictures for the children of our street, our closest gelato place and chocolate shops, the nearest playground. When we arrived as a family, almost everything was working, and we didn’t need to spend a lot of our time with the kids waiting on long lines and running dull errands. It helped get us off to a fun start.

7. We may regret this later, but we let a lot of things go this year. The adults in our family were getting a treat, a real respite from the regular demands of our daily professional lives. So we thought the kids deserved a break, too. And we told them so, waiving a lot of the rules that we normally follow at home. This year, the kids are allowed to order anything they want to eat or drink from restaurant menus. The kids wanted a break from violin practice—what the heck, it was a sabbatical, so we allowed them to take the year off. We’ve allowed more TV time, more desserts, more electronics, later bedtimes, more impulse purchases. . .all with the idea that it is a special year for all us. We think of it as a way to mark this time as a special epoch.

8. Invest in eReaders. We were a bit dubious about introducing the children to Kindles. But English language books are incredibly expensive and hard to find in places where English is not the native language. Plus, books are very expensive to ship home. Back in Madison, we shuttle books back and forth to our local library every week and we worried about what it would be like not to have that resource. So we decided to buy each kid a Kindle as a buon viaggio gift. Best. Idea. Ever. We don’t know what we (or they) would have done if we couldn’t simply download new books for the kids. . .and all of their favorite books from the year now only weigh a few ounces. Best of all, a lot of the child classics are now free downloads.

9. We made a decision to budget, and then not worry about money for one year. We had a very funny (in retrospect) and humbling experience a few months before our sabbatical began. We had spent hours figuring out the most we could possibly spend on rent in Rome, then stretched a bit more to “treat” ourselves. But when we began looking at real estate, we realized that we had been living in Wisconsin for too long! Our estimates were so far off that realtors all wrote back saying they had absolutely nothing to show us. So we took the view that our daily lives are pretty inexpensive in Madison relative to what they would be in bigger US cities. Given that, we decided to just live in the moment and stress about finances before and after– but not during– the sabbatical year. We reasoned that we only had a year, and we didn’t want an apartment that required us to spend time on a bus or in a car commuting, or having breakfast in a dreary room, or not being able to walk and get a good coffee or gelato or bread. Sabbaticals are special, and so it did not seem worth it to us to cast a shadow over the time by sweating a little debt for one year; we decided to just make great memories. We’ve uttered not a word to each other , or even focused much, about our daily expenses this year. That said, our friends are welcome to join us for beans and rice next year, because our major austerity measures kick in on September 1st!

10. There are many other topics that we wish we had thought more about ahead of time. It is worth considering how much travel is right for your family (too little and you don’t take full advantage of your location, too much and you miss integrating into local social life); How much effort will you make to avoid using English (kids will follow adults’ lead in their comfort level); How can you maximize meeting other parents, even if it cuts into work time?; How can you best find babysitters (Hint: students studying abroad are not allowed to work and often welcome extra cash, local high school students know the lay of the land, and student teachers are young, energetic and in need of cash); How frequently you can accommodate guests so that you can have fun visits and share your experience, but still be available to accept invitations from locals?

But our take home message is simple: If you’re in a job where you have this sort of opportunity, grab it and worry about the details later! Or, as they used to say in Rome, carpe diem! For all of the planning, work, expenses, and anxiety, we feel that our family got out of this year every single thing that we had hoped for.

We hope that some of these thoughts and suggestions will smooth your future paths, and welcome additional ideas from others who have taken a family sabbatical.

And for those of you on the fence about whether you can really pull it off, we offer an unequivocal yes—just do it. . .go!

– Seth & Jenny

Last January I received a perfectly timed email from my friend Amy, whose family spent a sabbatical in Amsterdam a few years ago. She had written to check in; recalling that at the halfway point of her year away, she was coming to terms with the fact that sabbatical doesn’t last forever. It was helpful to hear from her, because the week I received Amy’s note, I was in sheer misery.

I had pulled off a great travel coup, optimizing our travel to Europe with minimal frequent flier miles. A feature of my plan allowed me to continue pushing back our return date each time the airline made a schedule change. But then I learned that our airline tickets were about to expire and, finally, I had commit to a flight home.

Jenny was away giving a talk in London on the day I booked our return flight. And after I got off the phone with the airline, I crawled into bed, fully dressed, pulled the covers over my head, and stared blankly at my pillow for hours. My chest felt heavy, my eyes swelled, and I couldn’t even bring myself to write or call anyone to say how miserable I felt. Later, when I tried to write a blog post about all this, I couldn’t type more than a few sentences before I got upset and stopped. I’ve started this blog entry numerous times since January, but finally, now, on February 21st  April 2nd  May 17th  June 1st  June 7th, June 16th, I think I am coming to terms with this precious year coming to a close. And although I wish the sabbatical could last another year, now I am mostly feeling thankful that Jenny, Nell, Eli and I were able to share this amazing experience.

There are three reasons why I think I am having a particularly hard time grappling with our time in Italy coming to an end.

The first reason is easy and simple: sabbatical—any time, any place– is liberating and awesome. Who wouldn’t love being totally in control of one’s own time? I’ve been afforded a year free of almost all meetings and have only had to glance at my appointment calendar a handful of times. I’ve had zero work-related travel, written no grants, taught no classes, and ignored almost all administrative emails. I even have a collection of funny emails from colleagues around the world enviously responding to the autoreply on my email (inspired and paraphrased from my friend Megan Gunnar) that basically says “My time is my own for this one year.” Nearly everything I have done this year, from work to social engagements, has been by choice, not obligation. But having days free to think and write, and not feeling under pressure every day to get more and more done, has been wonderful. As has been the growth that comes from pulling myself out of my comfort zone and into a new situation.

The second reason that I was so sad is that I really adore Rome. There are many things in life that I wish I had done differently, but the impulsive and random decision that Jenny and I made over seven years ago to spent a year here was perfect! Rome is a city of the past and I’ve always been too focused on the future, but this context has helped me savor and appreciate the present. I have taken to the pace of the city, resonate with the colors, will never tire of the food, and still get almost giddy as things come together and I realize the Roman origins of so many aspects of our contemporary civilization. I like the hours, the chaos, the clothing, the climate, the high culture, the language, the thirty-second breakfasts and three-hour lunches, and even the superficiality of la bella figura (literally “the beautiful figure”), a philosophy that governs social life here and basically is about how one comports oneself. After a full year here, I don’t feel like I have even scratched the surface of what there is to see and learn about Rome, and I feel surprisingly “at home” here given that we are strangers at every level.

But the third, and deeper, reason that I want to cling tenaciously to this year is more quirky than the other two explanations. It is that this period of time has been something incredibly special that Jenny, Eli, Nell and I have shared, intensely, together. . and we’ve enjoyed it, noticed it, been so aware of it, and I just wish we could have more of it—not forever, but just a little longer, before the kids get older. I’d love to freeze us all in this moment for just a bit longer.

This was really a family adventure that changed and improved the way we all interact. We knew no one when we arrived, had no entrée into a social network, no work connections, no histories with anyone here. So we’ve been really dependent upon each other. There is little rushing off for activities or practices or clubs or work; we’ve missed only a handful of dinners together as a family. And our traveling adventures this year have put us in some unusual situations and led to a lot of time talking and playing with each other. Early on, even everyday errands required collaboration, as we’d work together to try and figure out how to ask for help or directions. Amy wrote in her email to me that at around the six-month mark of her own sabbatical, she began to realize that every day left felt precious. That has felt very true for me, too!

It will be healthy to get back into a regular social milieu, and good for all of us in many ways. But I hope that this period of family bonding will stay with us for a long time. I especially hope that the special bond that Eli and Nell developed after a year of reliance on each other for companionship will endure. And I hope I deal okay with the ambivalent feelings I am sure to experience when we get home and the kids are able to run out of the house on their own to meet friends—something we haven’t done since June, 2011. There will be some big changes.

We left on our last sabbatical when Eli was two years old and Nell was six months old, and I didn’t realize at the time how deeply fatigued we were. This time, our sabbatical is happening during a wonderful age for children; I can’t imagine an easier developmental period for parenting. The children are old enough to wipe their own asses, but young enough to crawl into my lap and snuggle. They are old enough to carry their own luggage through an airport and read to themselves for hours when flights are delayed, but still young enough that they actually want to travel with us. I love this age where the kids can dress and groom themselves and share independent ideas and reflections on travel, but do not yet have teenage hormonal fluctuations. The kids have a broad friendship network, but it’s still always under parental watch. I can’t imagine a period where parenting involves so much fun and so little fatigue or worry, and I’m so grateful that this year away allowed me to step back and really appreciate it.

And as someone who works all the time and loves it, I’ve also come to appreciate the southern European emphasis on quality of life.

During our last sabbatical in Montreal, we seriously considered not returning to Madison. But Jenny’s dad wisely encouraged us to consider that had we been on the faculty at McGill and spending our sabbatical at Wisconsin, then we would likely be in love with Madison. Being a no-strings-attached visitor is not the same as having to work, teach, assume administrative responsibilities, and maintain long-term relationships. . . it just isn’t an equal comparison. It is hard to imagine not falling in love with a sabbatical destination and feeling trepidation about returning to a regular life. And even the kids feel this a bit. I think they like having relaxed and attentive sabbatical parents. And they like the interpersonal warmth we’ve all experienced from people here. Eli asked us if we could promise him that we would always return to Rome at least once a year, adding “and when I get older, I am going to bring my children to Rome every year, too.”

We will be back. We’ve met a few wonderful friends with whom I would like to have more of a history and a future. And to help that, I’ve lightened my mood by already booking flights for us all to return for an extended visit here next year.

We have a lot left that we want to do in our last few weeks here. And we are all a bit sad at the prospect of leaving. But I am so, so glad that we took this sabbatical year together.

I know that when I get home, I’ll be energized and stimulated by face-to-face meetings with my students and collaborators. I know I’ll feel comforted sharing a hug and a glass of wine with my old friends. I know that we will appreciate this year for years to come. Nonetheless, I’m going to head off to the airport suppressing the urge to yell out what my kids say when we tell them that it is time to leave a fun party: please, not yet. . .I don’t want to go. . .cinque, solo cinque. . .I’m not tired. .  .just five more minutes. . . I’m not ready; I’m still having fun. . . per favore. . .I promise I’ll go right away if you’ll give me a little more time, pretty please. . . .can’t I stay just a little bit longer. . . no fair. . . .


10. Finally figured out how to pay those damn Italian utility bills on line.

9. Now know the other parents at school, can match each child with their parent, and can follow a conversation when the other parents drift from English back to Italian in mid-sentence. . . .all this after months of vigorously nodding my head and smiling, with no idea of who people were or what they were saying to me.

8. Can actually help random tourists who ask for directions, instead of simply shrugging.

7. Still full from lunch at 6pm and not even considering dinner yet.

6. 70 degrees feels cold and warrants a scarf.

5. At last! Known and recognized by some of the most important people in Rome: the vegetable guy at the local market, the fishmonger, the cranky pasta lady, baristas at three good coffee places, the owner of the wine store around the corner, and the cheerful server at the best gelateria.

4. Work schedule now depends upon no new emails arriving until late afternoon here (when people in North America are just starting their mornings).

3. No longer intimidated to cross a street in Rome and am confident that the kids now know how to watch for motorscooters.

2. Average fat in Italian artisanal gelato = 8%; average fat in premium US ice cream = 22%.

1. 7780 kilometers facilitates denial about the Wisconsin recall election.

— Seth

I feel a bit ashamed that I’m actually posting this blog entry because it is so hypocritical. But since this blog is meant to chronicle our year, I want to document the bad along with the good.

Here’s the backdrop: we’ve been lamenting the fact that we have only one year to spend in Rome. When asked, our conversational tag line has been that we miss our friends and life back home and we’ve never considered not returning to Madison. But one year isn’t enough and we wish we could have two or three years here before leaving. This is, in part, because Rome is so incredibly seasonal.  We’ve learned so much having spent a year here that we want to do it again and know what to expect. And of course, for us, this is largely based upon food. All of us have discovered some classic dishes and foods that are only available at certain times of the year. Although nearly anything could be available frozen, no self-respecting trattoria would offer dishes out of season. . .and very little is frozen here. When the puntarelle is gone, it’s gone. Same with the artichoke Romana, the special Roman broccoli, the peach gelato. . . there are so many things that I would have eaten more of knowing that they would go away so soon!

This was the main reason that I wanted another round here. But now I have another reason.

Having lived through it, I now realize that I didn’t appreciate the calm of November and February. When we first arrived last Summer, our heads were spinning with novelty and by the time we began to settle in the Fall, we couldn’t tell that the city—as well as our heads—was beginning to calm. But starting at around Easter time, the tourists began flooding the city, and. . .okay, let me just get it out there: I’m feeling so irritated.

I didn’t realize how good I had it here in the off season and how quickly the city would change.

After mid-September, when the summer tourists left, Rome felt gorgeous, pleasant, and familiar. November was amazing. Reputed to be the city’s rainy month, we actually had very few wet days and warm sunny weather. Reservations were easily scored at any restaurant, theatre tickets available at the last minute, there was space on the sidewalks. . .still no seats on the metro, but one can’t have everything. As expected, things got a little worse in December, with winter school breaks and family holidays, but it still wasn’t that bad or inconvenient and the holiday lights around the city were festive. What I didn’t fully appreciate was how amazing February was. It felt like we had the city to ourselves, easily navigating the narrow streets, clear views of anything that caught our gaze, unfatigued waiters, few lines at museums. Foolishly, I attended to the (relative) cold and the rain. How myopic! If only I had realized what Spring would bring.

Last week, I was nearly late picking the children up from school bus. I’ve been following the same route all year, but it now takes me about twenty minutes longer. On Friday, I stopped no less than 27 (!!!) times to allow someone to block the sidewalk and take a picture of their beloved in front of something. We now have to factor in extra time to dodge around the couples who have stopped mid-street to consult their maps. Today, at some points, more people were standing still on the sidewalk trying to figure out where to go than actually walking. Yesterday I caught snippets of three women berating their husbands for not asking directions (okay, I’ll admit that I smiled when I overheard “Gerald, I’m sure they all speak English. . .”). I’m now often getting caught behind large packs of tour groups wearing earpieces and following guides who are waving flags. The French groups seem to like to spread out and disperse, so I dodge between them, whereas the Japanese groups like to stay tightly packed together, so I have to squeeze around the outside. I went to a bakery today in Campo dei Fiori and realized that I heard not a single person speaking Italian.

The weather here has been spectacularly gorgeous, but sometimes I want my cold, wet Rome back. Ordinarily, this isn’t the type of thing I’d say out loud. Except today at the bus stop, as I arrived again feeling flustered from navigating through the crowds, another parent validated my experience. I asked one of the moms at the bus stop what her family was doing for the children’s Spring Break next week. And she told me that her family always tries to leave Rome for this school holiday because it is so overwhelming when the Spring tourists begin arriving and it is hard to transition to the crowds.

Indeed! Spring Break hits in never-ceasing waves. For Americans, the breaks start early, some as soon as the beginning of March. Then other European countries have their school closings. The school holiday is late here, with our children not having Spring Break until early May. And then the summer visitors will begin arriving.

But I temper my feelings of encroachment with two thoughts.

First, I remember that we were those people blocking the sidewalks just a few months ago. We couldn’t walk down a street without pulling out our camera. And we missed much of our surroundings because our noses were glued to maps and iPhones as we tried to gain our bearings. And when we are not in Rome this year, we’ve been tourists in other people’s neighborhoods.

Second, bless these wonderful tourists! Rome has been a tourist destination since the Middle Ages. We live at the old north gate to the city, where pilgrims would arrive, and for hundreds of years there have been churches, hospitals, and hotels in our neighborhood to greet them. I’m so appreciative that people have the curiosity and interest to visit this fantastic city, where so much of our present day civilization was first realized. These tourists fuel the economy and support the community here in every way (each night someone stays at a hotel here, 1.5 Euros go to helping preserve and restore the city’s wondrous ruins).

I’ve never before lived in a city that depended so heavily on tourism—and it is enlightening.  It just takes some getting used to. These days, I’m trying to navigate through crowded streets to pick up my dry cleaning or groceries, get to the gym, or pick up the children. But the clicks of the cameras are a great reminder to stop and look up, because almost anywhere in this eternal city, my eye will catch something that makes me think: “wow.” Who wouldn’t want a photo to chronicle a journey here?

I bet for our next visit to Rome, we’ll travel in flagrant violation of school holidays and aim for the off-season, favoring peaceful city streets over warmer weather. In the meantime, like our fellow Romans, we are leaving. We’ll spent our Spring Break in Barcelona, where we will block the sidewalks of the locals there—and probably ask them for directions, in English.

— Seth

On Wednesday morning my class left for a three day class trip. It was a two hour bus ride because we had to leave the region of Lazio to go to Umbria. When we got there we went to the music and movement room and we were taught all of the rules about Arteaparte. Other kids at my school said that the person who worked there was really mean, but she wasn’t really too mean. She just had a lot of rules.

There was a whole maze there that we could play in during our free time. After every activity we got free time, basically.

During free time I mostly played soccer.

The food there was AMAZING, especially their pesto pasta. For breakfast, we got cereal, toast and jam and milk. The jams were home made.

We also did some cooking. My group made a peach crostata. I cracked the eggs and mixed the yolk with the flour.  The other group made a chocolate ring cake. The dessert that we made turned out really well.

All of the kids got to sleep in a room of five or six kids in each room. Our teacher let us make our own groups for each room.

The first day we went on a long walk through a deep river. At one point I slipped in, in my clothes. I was soaked! The next day, we went on a two hour thirty minute hike through the countryside. It was really tiring but it was interesting. We saw half a scorpion dead. We saw snakes, bees, and wasp nests.

We learned how to play the drums. We had four or five people in a group and we had to create an on-going mechanism with our bodies.

It was fun to go on a three day, two night trip with my whole class.

Overall, it was a great trip. I was really tired when we got home on Friday afternoon. I think I will remember almost everything.

My teacher posted good pictures of us on our class blog:

— Eli

A few friends have written to say that we seem to be having such a good time this year, they are worried that we won’t return home. And still others have told us that they had to stop reading our blog because envy was getting the better of them. (No doubt, I will feel similarly next year reading other travel blogs).  So this post is meant to balance the blog a bit and show that life in southern Europe isn’t always a torta walk.

I have now visited our bank here in Rome six times. And it feels as if those visits account for a significant proportion of my time since arriving in Italy. Here’s a little local flavor. . .

Visit Number 1:

I arrive at the bank to open an account, bearing every conceivable form of documentation I could think of. But I never could have adequately prepared. First, according to UniCredit/Bank of Rome, Wisconsin does not exist. Using the most polite and formal form of address that I could muster, I insisted that Wisconsin was in fact one of the 50 United States. But the banker kept shaking her head and telling me that her computer would not accept it as a US address. “Florida?” she asked me twice. “No, Wisconsin,” I replied, brandishing my driver’s license. After nearly an hour, we compromised and, according to my bank account here, my permanent address is “Wisconsen.”

My mis-spelled address was not my biggest hurdle. It took me three and a half hours to open my account. This transaction seemed to require a particular choreography that involved the banker typing a lot on her keyboard, telling me that opening the account was “not possible,” calling her colleague on the phone to express frustration, then talking in an agitated manner to another colleague about how impossible it was for me to open an account, and then returning to tell me again that it was not possible for me to open a bank account, but she would try again. This dance was repeated four times. After each stanza I was told it was “not possible”. I would ask again, each time commiserating more with her about how difficult life is and apologizing profusely about my coming into the bank to open an account. She would wave her hands in the air and consult with a colleague, who did the same. Repeat.

The fifth time was the charm. Although it was “not possible,” they deemed it okay to “make an exception” this one time. The saving grace seemed to be either the welcome letter I had from the American Academy in Rome, or my having secured a Codice Fiscale (the Italian equivalent of a social security number), courtesy of the Italian Consulate in Chicago. Or simply that I did not give up. I have no idea what was being exempted. But it was necessary for me to sign many pieces of paper. More signatures, in fact, than were required to get a mortgage and buy our house in the States. The banker set an empty folder in front of me and then proceeded to pull sheet after sheet of paper from her printer that required my signature. By the end of the morning, I had signed almost an inch-high stack of pages—most all of which were simply put in the folder and given back to me to bring home. I was told to keep all of them. I was told my ATM card would arrive later (“later” being the understatement of the year).

Visit Number 2 (or, where’s my money?):

Once the account was opened, I wired money from my bank in “Wisconsen” to my account in Rome. The money was taken out of our US bank account immediately, but failed to appear in our Italian account. One week, then two weeks, then a month went by – no Euros appeared. Jenny called our US bank to ask them to trace the wire transfer, and they reported back to us that the money had in fact been accepted by our Italian bank just hours after it was sent. So I took a deep breath, grabbed my Italian dictionary, and headed to the bank to find our money.

First I was told that it was “not possible” for them to trace the money and if I waited, it would appear. But I was already intuiting that tenacity was the only way to get anything done at the bank. I refused to leave and showed them the transfer confirmation number. And then I waited, and waited. And waited. The banker returned and said that the money had not been put into my account because I never completed the required paperwork. They could not give me the papers to sign until I gave my verbal oath that the money was simply to be used for my personal living expenses. We went to a cubicle and the familiar dance began again. The banker pounded on her keyboard, raised and lowered her hair in frustration, called her colleagues, went from office to office until the entire staff was standing in the hallway talking animatedly about my wire transfer. I didn’t understand a word of the conversation.

And then the banker began printing out pages for me to sign. Half of the pages had my name, address, account number, and the amount of the transfer on them. The other half of the pages were identical forms, but not populated with my personal data. I was told to take all of the blank forms and hand write the information from the populated forms so that all of the pages contained identical information. When I was done, I had twelve pages of identical information, half of which were printed and the other half handwritten. The banker asked me to sign all of them, then stapled them together, and handed all twelve of them to me to take home. She told me that the money would be in my account “soon.” The process took just over two and a half hours.

Visit Number 3 (or, nobody’s home):

The third time I visited my bank, it was a Friday morning. I intended to deposit a check that I had received from a university in The Netherlands. When I arrived, I found a locked door displaying a sign informing me that because it was August, the bank would only be open on Wednesdays– and maybe, sometimes Thursday mornings. I walked back home. It was a nice stroll.

Visit Number 4:

Now a savvy bank customer, I returned to the bank the following Wednesday to deposit my check. It seemed not to be so bad. In my previous visits, I had to go to the area of the bank where I sat at a desk in someone’s cubicle. But this was just an ordinary transaction in the bank lobby. I noticed three tellers sitting at their windows with a customer in front of each one, but the lobby was otherwise empty! I had heard so many horror stories of waiting times at the bank. So when one of the customers left, I approached the empty teller window. Major mistake. I had not realized that behind me was a lovely marble lounge area, with very sleek fire-engine red and jet-black leather couches . . .upon which sat many, many customers awaiting their turn and reading. Apparently, hidden somewhere in the lobby, was a ticket machine. The queue rolls so slowly that customers take their tickets, then go to the waiting area, where they hang out until their number is called. Although Italians are notorious for not queuing in an orderly manner, this system is new and has met with much local fanfare because it prevents crowding in front of the teller windows. You’d think when you take a number, it would be simple, 101, 102, 103. . .but, no. They add a letter to indicate what kind of transaction you want to conduct, which means there is no way to anticipate when your number will be called. The neon sign that indicates whose turn it is reads, serially: A100, A101, C22, D7, A102, E3, A103, C23. . .so you never know quite when your turn is coming.

It took me a while to select the right letter (I was wrong the first time and had to join the queue again). The story has a sad ending, though. Later that morning, when I finally made it to a teller window, she refused to take the check because it was made out to “Seth Pollack” instead of “Seth Pollak.” A common misspelling– and no worse than “Wisconsen.” “It is not possible,” she said flatly, because those are two different names and could be two different people. So I brought my check back home and asked the university to wire me the money because I didn’t ever want to go to the bank again.

Visit Number 5 (or, where’s my money II?):

The next time I visited the bank I noticed a sign on the front door that said “October 4th” in bold print above a brief paragraph. I didn’t pay too much attention to translating the sign because I assumed it was just announcing another day that the bank would be closed for a holiday. I dutifully took my number (the right one this time!) and made my way to the fashionable sofas (with a book in hand this time!). I was sort of excited because I felt like I got the routine of how to handle the bank. And on my walk, I had been practicing how to ask to withdraw money from my account. I had even prepared the right vocabulary to explain to the teller that it was my first time making a withdrawal, in case I didn’t complete the required forms correctly. But I need not have reveled in my emerging Italian.

When my turn arrived (at about 10:30 in the morning), the teller told me that the bank was out of money and there would be no withdrawals available until October 4th.  “No money?” I repeated, because I was sure I had not comprehended her fast Italian. She turned to the teller next to her and said, “Can we have money for Mr. Pollak next week?” Her colleague responded in rapid-fire Italian that I couldn’t understand at all. Then the teller said to me, in slow, deliberate Italian (that I actually appreciated), “Yes, come back on Monday and you can make your withdrawal then.”

I was truly dumbstruck. Still standing in the bank lobby, I pulled out my cell phone and called my friend Sabrina, a New Yorker who has lived in Rome for about 10 years. “I think I’m having one of those life-in-Italy-moments,” I began to say as I heard her knowing but jaded laughter. . .

Visit Number 6 (or, the where’s my money quiz?):

I went back on Monday morning to try and make my withdrawal. I brought my iPad with an Italian-English dictionary to help me complete the withdrawal slip correctly. I was engaged in a common situation in Italy: I was making a purchase for which I was quoted one price if I paid cash with no receipt, and another (much higher) price if I paid by credit card or wanted a receipt. So I opted for the option that required cash. When I approached the window, the teller took my withdrawal slip and then handed me a blank sheet of paper and a pen. I was sure that I was misunderstanding her instructions as she handed me the paper. So I explained that I was just learning Italian and asked her to repeat what she had said, but more slowly. Then I started sweating because I had, in fact, understood her. She had asked me to write a one-paragraph essay about why I was withdrawing money from my account. Ordinarily I would have thought this a bit intrusive (especially given the modest sum of my own money I was requesting), but I was too panicked to think much at all.

I should explain that at this time I was also taking an Italian class. And once per week we had a quiz, where we would have to write a description of a picture or recount what we had done the previous day. The teacher would return these essays to us covered in corrections made with a red pen. It gave me traumatic flashbacks to my abysmal performance in Junior High School French class, the nadir of my academic pursuits. So there I was—being given a non-native language quiz in the bank. I was nervous, not because I was using cash to avoid paying tax, but because I feared the bank teller was going to correct my subject-verb agreement. I wondered how ungrammatical I could be and still get my money . . . and whether money was a masculine or feminine noun. So, using the working vocabulary of a 5-year-old, I wrote a succinct paragraph about needing the cash to take a family vacation in France.

Then I took my cash and went for a much needed glass of wine.

My experience is not unique. My friends on sabbatical in France have had similar experiences. You can read a clever account of their experience that I particularly resonated with here.

— Seth

My beautiful but dysfunctional bank.

The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul was the first shopping mall.  It was built in 1461. The bazaar has about 4,000 shops and is like a city.  The Sultans used to have armed guards surround the building at night to protect it.  It was the most important shopping place in the world during the Ottoman Empire.

Going to the bazaar was one of the things that I was really looking forward to doing in Istanbul. My Aunt Lois sent me some money so that I could buy myself something in Istanbul and I knew I wanted to spend it at the bazaar.

We did not expect that the building of the Grand Bazaar would be so beautiful!

First of all, you don’t just buy things at the price they tell you, you have to bargain. I really like bargaining and thought it would be more fun than regular shopping. I read articles about how to bargain before we left for Istanbul. And also when my Uncle Sy came to visit, I also learned a little bit about bargaining from him. Here are some of the bargaining basics: (1) Don’t pay more for something than you really want to pay, (2) If you agree on a price with the seller, then you shouldn’t say another one because that is rude, (3) Be very polite and friendly when you are negotiating, (4) If you decide not to buy something, then just say no and don’t feel bad about walking away because the people selling stuff do this every day, (5) Don’t show how much you might like something because they might not make the best price for you, (6) The sellers usually tell you a price that is two times what they expect to sell it for, so you can start negotiating with half the price they tell you.

Every guide book says that the bazaar is overwhelming, but it really isn’t that bad. Mom was thinking that she might not go because she thought it would be too much. But we all went and thought it was great. The building is cool and the bazaar was very interesting.

It made it easier for me to shop because I had ideas about what I wanted. I knew that I wanted jewelry and maybe a pretty scarf. Some people say that bargaining is part of the fun of going to the bazaar. You might be wondering if I bargained? Yes, I did. Bargaining was very fun.

My Dad made a conversion sheet for me from 10 Turkish Lira to 100 Turkish Lira counting by 5s so that I would know how much Euros I was spending. Also while we were walking to the bazaar me and my Dad made a code word. The code word was “cosi-cosi,” which means “so-so” in Italian. And if my Dad asked if I liked something and I said “cosi-cosi”, it meant to my Dad that I really wanted to buy it, but thought it was too expensive so was going to start bargaining.

The first thing that I got was a pretty scarf. My strategy for that one was to pretend I was going to leave so he would make the price lower. This is how it happened. First he dropped the price 10 percent. Then I told him that the light blue color might get stained with food, so it wasn’t the best for me. Then he lowered the price. Then I said I liked it but it was more than I wanted to pay. Then he showed me other scarves and I said “no thank you” and then he asked me what I would pay. I told him I was going to keep looking at other places and as I was walking away he made another price. And at the end, I bought it for 40% of what he first said. My parents said that they really thought I was not going to buy it when I started to walk away.

After I bought my scarf, the seller and I took a picture together.

And other thing I got was a bracelet. Remember how I told you how you can’t show a lot how much you like it? Well, my Dad had to make my mom go in a different section because she kept saying how much she liked the bracelet and she was being so enthusiastic that it was ruining my bargaining. I kept walking away to check my conversion sheet because I had to keep track of how much money I had left. It was hard to think about Turkish Lira and Euros and Dollars. The man selling it kept offering a price to my Dad, but Dad told him it was my money so he had to negotiate with me. This time I made an offer that was a little less than what I really wanted to pay for it. Then he made an offer, then I said a price that was in the middle and he said “OK.” My bracelet has little mini Nazar Boncuk charms (or Evil Eye Beads) in different colors. The eye in the beads are supposed to keep you safe from evil spirits. It is one of the most common decorations that I saw in Turkey. You can see women wearing them as jewelry and you see them at homes and hotels. My Great Grandma Rosie believed in the “evil eye” and after people that she thought had the Evil Eye left, she would spit three times for good luck!

My brother got a beautiful chess set. Ever since we got to Roma, he had been looking for a chess set as a souvenir from this year. The board is very pretty wood and it is decorated with inlaid mother of pearl. Eli shows a lot of enthusiasm when he likes something, which is not great for bargaining. But he did a good job anyway and part of his negotiating was to get two different sets of pieces from different chess sets. He got one side is ancient Roman characters and the other side is ancient Egyptian characters. The pieces are made of brass.

The seller showed Eli a puzzle to solve where you have to switch the places of the knights.

We all had a great time at the Grand Bazaar.

Stopping for an apple tea break at the Grand Bazaar.

— Nell

Talk among people who love to travel often includes the sentiment that it is mind-broadening to see what life is like in other places. Often it is not the monuments that make travel stimulating, but the opportunities to reflect on mundane parts of life that are otherwise under our attentional radar . . .what is in the category of breakfast food? What’s a polite way to introduce yourself? How do you answer the phone?

Whenever I land in a new place, my first impulse is to make comparisons between life at home and elsewhere. And even a brief trip offers this possibility. But my opportunities to live in other countries for extended periods of time have afforded something very special. That is: having those salient differences begin to feel like a normal part of daily life. I recently became aware of ways in which that has happened to me this year.

I was waiting to pay at the grocery store, when the woman in front of me began to pay her €8,60 tab by taking out a €20 bill. The clerk at the cash register looked at her with unabashed distain and the people behind her waiting to check out—myself included—groaned. And I realized how acclimated I was becoming to life in Italy.

Here are some examples of ways that we’ve really started to “settle in” here. Let me explain the grocery store incident, and some other examples. . .

Paying with Exact Change

People in Rome pay cash for almost everything, and they pay in exact change. When we first arrived, I hardly recognized cash. Back home, I use my credit card for even the smallest purchases, even swiping my campus ID card for cups of coffee. When I do break bills, I dump the leftover change into a bowl on my dresser each night and cannot remember ever leaving my house in the morning carrying coins. (When we were packing for our move to Italy I was pleasantly surprised to find my bowl contained almost $500 in loose change).

But in Rome, I carry change in a small leather pouch, and my “change bowl” has only about .37 cents in it. If your purchases come to €8,60, shopkeepers here expect you to hand over €8,60—though it is perfectly acceptable to pay €10,60 and get a €2 coin in return, or €11,10 to get a .50 coin back. Early on, I was perplexed because with everyone else paying in exact change, it seemed easy for shopkeepers to make change. And I felt awkward when clerks gave me a dirty look for handing over a new bill from the ATM. Even when a meal is occasionally charged to a credit card here, the gratuity is left in cash. When we first arrived, I was so used to having only my credit cards that I ended up needing to return to restaurants later in the evening to tip the waiter. Now we automatically pay with exact change and game when we are making a purchase that would allow us to use larger bills to ensure that we have plenty of exact change on hand. (“This place is fancy,” Jenny will whisper as we approach a cashier, “break a 50”).

No Food On the Go

I can hardly remember a meeting, class, or kid soccer game back home when people have not arrived carrying water bottles or coffee cups. But I have not seen anyone walking or driving through the streets of Rome consuming beverages (only smoking). Students here do not show up for classes carrying beverages, either. (And a can of Diet Coke costs more than a carafe of house wine). It is very unusual to see Italians eating or drinking in contexts other than sitting down to a meal or at a bar, and doing so now feels weirdly inappropriate. I don’t think I have consumed anything (other than from a water fountain) outside of my home or a restaurant in months. Though I often stop for a drink, I no longer think of taking it with me.

Sparse Breakfasts and Leisurely Lunches

I had ingrained this idea that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. But the morning “meal” is an afterthought here. From what I can tell, most Italians have an espresso at home and then, en route to work or school, stop for another coffee and a small bit of really sweet pastry. That about covers the range of food options for breakfast, even on weekends. Interestingly, in Italian, meals are verbs, not nouns. So I would say to someone, “do you want to lunch” or “let’s lunch” rather than “do you want to have lunch.” But not so for breakfast, which seems too unimportant to verb. . . people don’t really consider their morning coffee and pastry a meal anyway; it lasts about 3 minutes.

Back home, I do not usually eat lunch.  Because my university colleagues all have different teaching schedules, lunch is viewed as a time when people will be available to meet or attend lectures (the dreaded “brown bag” seminar). But here, lunch is sacrosanct and runs from 1 or 2pm until 3 or 3:30pm. And businesses close at lunch time, you can’t run any errands or get anything else done. . . there is basically nothing to do other than go and enjoy lunch. At first I didn’t think I could take a big meal mid-day or spend that kind of time.

Now I’m all flipped around. My morning “meal” consists of a cappuccino, followed by a late morning espresso. Lunch, beginning just after 1pm, often includes a white table cloth, a crisp Italian white wine, pasta, and fish. If lunch is as late as 2 or 3, I’ll grab a quick triangular half sandwich filled with fresh vegetables with the crust cut off in a coffee bar, or a rectangle of pizza rosso (focaccia with red sauce, no cheese) cut to the size I’ve requested, in a crowded bakery.

The Formal You

Initially I worried a lot about forms of address in Italian. In English, we just say “you” as in “nice to meet you” or “do you have this in a larger size.” But in Italian, there are three ways to say “you” when addressing someone directly. People use the most formal form of address Lei (lay) with business people, officials, persons of higher occupational rank– and professors! To be polite to people you don’t know (unless they are children or it is a group of young people talking together), people use voi (voy). And when you get to know someone better and with members of your family, you use tu (too). This social hierarchy felt weird given how casual American culture is. I mean undergraduate students whom I have never met begin emails with “Hey Seth!” and waiters approach my table to tell me their first names and chat like we are all great friends. But now I find that having options for addressing others is a comfortable way to be polite. I can ask a stranger for directions or thank a shopkeeper with my verbs conveying a deferential courtesy. I expressed surprise when Eli told me that he uses the informal tu when addressing his teacher at school, but he dismissed me with a wave of his hand exclaiming, “voi is SO old-fashioned Dad.” Among many Romans it is (though they do use Lei), but down in Naples, voi usage is still taken seriously.

I still cannot quite get used to the Lei form, though, because you are referring to someone in the third person and it feels so stilted. I will be leaving a shop and will say goodbye and thank you to the salesperson, and that person will respond by saying to me, “Thanks to Him.” I collided with a waiter one night and said, “Excuse me, are you alright?” (using the formal voi) and he replied, “No, excuse me. Is He alright?” (Using Lei). When people find out that Jenny and I are professors, they address us in the third person—but we are expected to respond using a less formal form of address with them. Although it feels unfair to me, when foreigners try to level the social playing field, it just makes people uncomfortable because we are asking them to behave rudely. I went to meet some colleagues at the Italian Health Ministry and a very high-ranking physician (who had a picture on her desk of herself chatting with the Pope) kept using the Lei form with me (“Would He like some coffee?” “Is He enjoying Rome?”) until I finally had to say, “May we use tu?” That worked, but as the distinguished visitor, the ball was in my court to make that offer. My friend Jana, an American professor who works a lot with Italians, told me that if I tried that with students, they’d find it inappropriate and awkward. My students back in Madison may be amused to think that here, they’d knock on my office door and say “Is He free to meet? When does He think He will be able to give me comments back on my paper”. This is just something weaved into the social fabric, but it just isn’t my culture. When our lovely and socially skilled housekeeper asked us directly what form of address we wanted her to use, we said, “We’re Americans, please let’s just use tu!”

Ungarnished Plates

Soon after arriving here, we began our recognizance to ferret out the best places to eat. The best eateries here are small and so scoring a table—let alone finding these unmarked buildings in winding alleyways—was a real thrill. But it took us a while not to feel an initial let down when our food arrived at the table. It all looked so . . . .plain. Not a garnish to be found, no fancy plates, no vertical vegetables. Authentic restaurants here present food as if you are eating at someone’s house (not affluent suburbanites who watch the food network and streak balsamic vinegar reduction across the rim of the plate, but how regular families would eat together on a weeknight). Pasta usually arrives on a small white plate unadorned. And by white plate, I don’t mean a shimmering huge plate with sloping sides that makes a small mound of food in the center pop. I mean a small 8” plain restaurant supply dish. Grilled fish will have a wedge of lemon next to it, but there is nothing on the plate that is not meant to be eaten, nor are things added to provide a little color or condiment. Case in point: gnocchi is often served with butter or a goat cheese sauce–  white pasta with a white sauce on a white plate.

We would think: “Is this it? Is this really the restaurant that locals raved about?” Then we would start eating and realize that Italian cuisine is all about the quality of the ingredients. In fact, if you are being served anything that has been previously frozen, the restaurant has to indicate that on the menu. It’s not technique or novel ingredient combinations, just the taste of a key, fresh, unadulterated flavor. There really is nothing more comforting than biting into pasta where one high note of flavor just soars. Now we find ourselves exclaiming that the spinach is the best we’ve ever had, that the sea bass is amazing, that the gnocchi are like pillows, etc. Somewhere along the line, we’ve totally changed our expectations about how restaurant food should look when it arrives, and I bet it will be weird to return to a culture where presentation is half the fun.


I have never visited a place other than Italy where people do not use the same word for “hello” when they answer a phone, greet people, and open a door. But when they pick up a ringing telephone, Italians say pronto!, which means “ready!” Pronto is used as a greeting only when answering a phone; its not an adjective in this context and just means hello.

I found this so odd, and reasoned that if I answered my cell phone saying “ready” then I really should be. . .and I wasn’t prepared to have someone launch into rapid fire Italian. So I stuck with my trusted “hello” to signal to callers that I’m an Anglophone.

But Romans are fanatical about their cell phones and all day long in bars, along the street, on the metro, I hear choruses of pronti.  One day it just happened. . .I wasn’t even thinking about it. My phone rang and I distractedly brought it to my ear uttering an automatic pronto. Jenny shot me a bemused “you can’t be serious” glance. Truth be told, I’m still not ready, but the greeting feels instinctive and hello just doesn’t seem right for the telephone.

— Seth

We have a little more perspective on our robbery now that we’ve had some time to sort through the details.

We appreciated how helpful Facebook can be. Jenny was feeling unsettled right after we discovered the break-in and decided to post a status update about it. It was so great to hear from so many friends—both from near and far—which made her feel a lot better. Friends in Rome who heard the news also called to check in on us and it was nice to have some local comfort.

Unfortunately, we may have blogged too fast yesterday when we reported that nothing was taken. As we were putting the apartment back together, we realized that there were some things stolen. It is true that our passports and most jewelry were left behind. The cash left behind worried us the most because it seemed so odd; but it might have been a case of them simply missing it as they were quickly turning things over. Three pieces of our jewelry and one item belonging to the owners of the apartment were taken. I lost a pair of cuff links that I had never worn and that had no monetary or sentimental value. Jenny lost a simple gold necklace (that she didn’t particularly like, but kept because her parents had given it to her) and pair of earrings that she liked, but were not particularly special to her. It is very fortunate that we decided to leave anything that was special to us back home in our bank’s safe deposit box—including everyday stuff with sentimental value. We knew we’d be traveling a lot and just didn’t think we needed much.

But we are relieved to know the thieves took something. That makes sense and is less creepy than thinking someone broke into our home and went through the house and then took nothing. This left us with a new hypothesis. Initially what we found odd was how much potentially valuable stuff—like electronics and passports—was left behind, as well as the fact that so many cabinets and doors and drawers had been opened. What was the motivation? Well, we got to see the thieves and they arrived only planning to take small stuff. But more on that in a paragraph or two. . .

What do we think happened? We got a fortunate deal on the apartment that we are renting. It is a two-floor penthouse in a very high-end neighborhood. A thief would expect rather affluent tenants—not two college professors on a year long sabbatical. We imagine that when the thieves saw Jenny’s jewelry in a basket in our bedroom, they didn’t believe that what they saw was really the family jewels of the lady of the manor. Jenny basically brought with her what might be politely called the “funky” type of jewelry often seen among our academic crowd. Translation = no precious metals or gemstones. The thieves might have thought that this stuff couldn’t have been all we had and that the good stuff was hidden somewhere else in the house. And they set about trying to find it.

We learned a bit from studying the mess left behind. It might be tempting to think that hiding jewelry in non-obvious places in one’s house will protect it. But the folks that hit our apartment didn’t leave much unexplored. They went through the kitchen drawers where we keep tin foil, empty vases and pottery in the study, our luggage and toiletry cases, children’s closets and games, linen closets, drawers of clothing (interestingly, Jenny’s, not mine), cabinets underneath bathroom sinks, the laundry room, and every single drawer and cabinet—including small drawers– in every room. If we did have nice jewlery, it is hard to think of where in the house we could have put them and not had them found.

But here is today’s interesting twist. The security company delivered the video tape from the camera monitoring our building today. It was an odd experience sitting in a crowd of other folks from our building and watching the tape— we played it fast-forwarded at first, as the sun began to light the street, then watched me leave to take the children to the bus in the morning, and saw the street coming alive with activity. As we approached the time when Jenny left the building my stomach felt very tense. I had left about a half hour after her. We knew that the thieves had about a three-hour window between when I left and when I returned. It was oddly satisfying when we saw them appear and watched them enter and then leave the building.

Jenny was relieved to see that the thieves came in through the front door rather than through an open window via the roof. (Often in Rome thieves enter at night while people are sleeping and administer a spray that sedates the residents and leaves – we are told—quite a headache the next day). We had thought it unlikely that anyone could enter our apartment through a means other than the door, though.

I had an image of a scary, burley, drug-crazed thug as the thief. But it was a team. And they weren’t creepy or frightening at all. They were a young couple who appeared to be in their late twenties. They looked like perfectly ordinary shoppers. The young woman kept fixing her hair—loosening and refastening her long pony-tail – as they waited to get in. She carried a super huge pocketbook that was obviously empty as they entered. The couple rang all of the doorbells in our building and stood outside for a while. When a tenant entered, they blocked the door from closing, waited another ten minutes, and then entered themselves. They were in the building for about 35 minutes. Presumably, some of that time was spent opening our door. (I was relieved to know that they had left long before I returned home. But word to the wise: I was foolish to have called the police from the apartment and should have left immediately when I realized something was wrong. I just wasn’t thinking). There was a third member of the team: a well-dressed woman in her mid-thirties wearing an all-black leather motorcycle outfit. She stood outside on the street holding an iPhone, presumably to notify them if anyone was returning to the building. None of them looked particularly nefarious —just like folks who’ve made a regular job for themselves. They looked really calm. At least they had the good taste to both stare directly at the camera– so if they are known to the police, they can be easily identified on the tape.

It feels somehow settling to have watched the crime unfold in real time. And Jenny added, cheerfully, that it was satisfying that we could sit in a room full of Italians from our building and be able to understand most of what they were saying and even bond with them over this violation of our building. Every time we saw someone approach the door to the building on the tape, someone would say something like, “Oh, that’s just signor XXX from the third floor” or “Oh, my mother and I were heading out for lunch.” We decided not to tell the children about the robbery yet. There doesn’t seem to be any need for them to get upset or worried and none of their stuff was taken.

Thinking about this made us realize that the most valuable inanimate possessions for us are our family photos. So we decided to buy extra space on DropBox and are now uploading all of our photos there in case our computers are ever stolen.

We are glad that there is a school holiday for the rest of this week- so we plan to skip town and explore Venezia for the long weekend.

And I thought of a creative place to hide the passports. . . .

For those of you who wrote saying you couldn"t believe I had taken notice of how the police looked. . . imagine having two guys dressed like this standing in your apartment! It was kind of wild.