I traveled through Italy in 1996 with my family and saw Cinque Terre before it was a “must see.” I experienced the energy in Siena just days before the Palio. I marveled at the massive interior of St. Peter’s Basilica. I lounged lake-side in Como and Bracciano. It wasn’t enough.
In the fall of 2003 I spent 90 days backpacking through Europe. It was the typical shoestring adventure, staying in hostels and eating salami & cheese sandwiches. Of my 16-week tour, 5 weeks were in Italy. I hiked from town-to-town in Tuscany. I watched a volcano erupt at night in Stromboli, off the coast of Sicily. I read “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” a fictional biography of Michelangelo’s life, after being awestruck by the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t enough.
In the fall of 2006 I went to Rome armed with knowledge of Italian and determined to have a richer, deeper experience. I lived and studied in Rome for a semester. I walked to and from school nearly every day, passing St. Peter’s, the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo and Piazza Navona. I had lectures in the Roman Forum and debated Science vs. Religion in a course taught by a Catholic Priest. I was a member of a local Jazz Club and a regular at a bar in the historic center. I attended A.S. Roma matches at Stadio Olympico and cheered with the Tifosi in Curva Sud. It wasn’t enough.
Regardless of whether or not I throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain to ensure my return, I always seem to find my way back to Italy. I have always had a notion of what I wanted to get out of my time here, and it was never quite right.
Mi mancava qualcosa – I was missing something – but I didn’t know what. I doubt that my thirst for Italy will ever be quenched, and I will likely continue to find my way back here. However, I can now say with 100% certainty that I finally found what it was I was looking for: my Italian family.
What makes this culture so rich is the undying devotion to your loved ones. Relationships with family and friends are absolutely sacred in this culture, nothing else takes priority…ever. It is in the name of these relationships that Italians enjoy long meals, create piazzas, and have siestas. Knowing this, I was desperate to integrate into this part of the culture, to feel this unconditional and unwavering love, to become part of an Italian family.
Last night was my final night with the Gelli family and little did I know that there would be a festa in my honor. Tonja invited her brothers and sisters, and their kids over for a “send off.” They wrote “La Canzone di Katie Wax” and sang it to me while one of the cousins played the guitar. Each of the girls wrote me a card with a picture and said “ti voglio bene” – I love you. Simone hand-crafted a bracelet for me out of bronze in his workshop, a gift so I can take the love of this family with me as I travel. Tonja and her sister Federica cried as I stumbled through a “Discorso” in Italian, thanking everyone for such an incredible experience. I finally felt it last night…this Italian love. It is rich, pure, and one of the most beautiful gifts I have ever received.
Thank you to the Gelli Family, the Pierallini Family, and all the other friends & families who welcomed me into their homes and hearts this summer. This experience was more than I could have ever imagined, and I lack the words to express my gratitude. My home, wherever or whatever it may be, will always be open to you.
Grazie alla famiglia Gelli, ed alla Famiglia Pierallini, e tutti gli altri amici e famiglie che mi hanno invitato nelle loro case e nel loro cuore quest’estate. Questa esperienza è stata più di quanto potevo immaginare, e mi mancano le parole per esprimere la mia gratitudine. La mia casa sarà sempre aperta per voi.
Before I left the States back in March, Tonja emailed me a recent photo of the kids. My mother took a look at the photo, pointed to Vera, and without hesitation said “You’re gonna have your hands full with that one.” I don’t know what it was that my mom saw, but she was right.
Vera is 9 years old and she is the best Italian instructor I have ever had, correcting not only my grammar but also my pronunciation regularly. She does a great job explaining to vocabulary to me, defining the new words out of old words I know. Vera is also the epitome of La Piu Grande – the oldest child. She seeks to be right, to please, and offers unsolicited advice on how to properly do just about anything. She is eager to help with any task, but doesn’t quite know how and more often than not, she just ends up contributing to more chaos. She is sly and clever as she effortlessly shifts the blame onto her younger sister for any wrongdoing.
When you are juggling 4 children under the age of 10, it is hard to remember that the oldest child is still a child. Vera is expected to be responsible, reliable, to know what is and isn’t okay, to keep an eye on her siblings at all times…it is a tough job, and I can relate. When you are always in charge of taking care of others, you forget to take care of yourself. Luckily, Vera discovered the importance of Alone Time at a much younger age than I did. I often see her wander off into her own world, a world where she can speak to animals, a world of song and dance. She has a creative spirit and an incredible sense of humor; I know that in the Gelli household, this will be encouraged to continue.
I have tried to show Vera that being the oldest is not a burden, in the end it is a blessing. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I hope she listened.
Without a doubt, being the middle child is difficult. Just try to imagine being the middle child in a loud, boisterous, large Italian family. Anna is seven years old and every day is a battle to be recognized and stand out among the crowd. Anna is not quite old enough to be a big help, like her older sister Vera. But she is also not young enough to be carried when her legs get tired, as we do with Lea and Folco. She is expected to behave, to clean up after herself, to set a good example, to know what to pack for a day at the pool, but she doesn’t yet have the ability to do this without guidance and supervision.
However, Anna has developed some incredible skills to avoid being lost in the shuffle. She is an acute observer and will immediately let you know if you have given her an unequal portion of nutella or a smaller piece of pizza than her sisters. She is also a chameleon, adapting her personality & creativity to fit the interests of whomever she is with. I have seen her flawlessly play the role of teacher, doctor, mother, and veterinarian when she is with her younger sister. But in the company of her older sister who has no interest in playing “pretend,” Anna is quick to jump on the Che Si Fa? – what are we going to do – bandwagon and seeks to be entertained.
I see a difficult adolescence for Anna as she will inevitably have trouble trying to figure out who she truly is and who she wants to be. But I hope at some point she realizes that she has an incredible maternal instinct. Yes, I understand that this is odd to note about a 7-year old, but it is true. More than her sisters, Anna seeks to be a second mother to Folco. She carries him around, feeds him, tries to explain the “rules” to him, and tries to help him learn and discover his world. Anna is an absolute sweet-heart and a nurturer. She will tend to any scratch, rolled ankle, or stubbed toe with an amazing bedside manner, seeing to it that you are comfortable and have everything you need. It is for this reason that I call her l’Infermiera – the nurse. Anna would make an incredible nurse one day, but for now I hope she just continues to play pretend.
Written on July 1st, 2011:
Yesterday Tonja and Simone went into town with two of the kids for a concert, leaving me with Anna (7) and Lea (5) for the night. All in all, apart from a clogged bidet, the evening went smoothly. We watched a Tinkerbell movie dubbed in Italian (Tinkerbell is “Trilli”, in case you wanted to know), and we practiced English verbs in the piazza after dinner. “Anna – Run! Lea – Hop! Anna – Stop. Anna – Skip. Lea – Stop. Lea – Walk!” A bi-lingual version of “Simon Says.”
The bidet incident happened while I was cooking dinner. The girls were playing House upstairs. Lea’s current cast over her broken shin had inspired the girls to pretend that their “Baby” had broken limbs. To help the wounds heal, they had carefully fashioned a body cast (mummification with toilet paper). I applaud their creativity.
Regardless of mummification, a baby still requires periodic bathing…with copious amounts of shampoo…and apparently the bidet is the best option. O mio dio, what a mess. It will likely take at least a week for the plumbing system to recover.
But clogging aside, last night marked a first for me – flying solo during the bedtime routine. I am a pro at this; it is simply an art of distraction. Turn teeth brushing into a song or come up with a peek-a-boo game while you put on their pajamas and they forget that they are getting ready for bed. But to do this in Italian?!?!? They didn’t teach me that kind of vocabulary in my classes. My creative approach to getting them to bed was to say that they could lay down their parents’ bed and wait for Simone & Tonja to come home. Sneaky because I knew full well that they’d fall asleep before the expected arrival at 1am.
However, there was a downside – the girls were committed to staying awake when normally they crawl into bed and close their eyes. They proceeded to ask me to tell a bedtime story, in Italian. Again, my college classes failed me. But the next 15 minutes were absolutely magical. Anna and Lea were calm and quiet as they helped me stumble through the story, correcting verb conjugations and filling in missed articles. They were attentive and curious, but at the same time I could tell that they were slowly winding down from the day’s activities. I arrived at the end of the story, and without a further word, both girls closed their eyes and fell asleep. Beautiful.
The story I told was one that I remember my mother telling me and my sister when we were young. I want to take a second to compliment my mother on her story-telling skills. Twenty years later and I still recall the details and the lesson of the story: presents must be opened with care, and you must take a moment to appreciate the gift and thank whomever gave it to you. Beautiful job mamma mia. Thank you for the inspiration for my first Storia Per Fare La Nana (Italian bedtime story).
Italians dine late, usually starting around 9pm and even later during the summer. Many guidebooks recommend going to a restaurant around 7:00pm to ensure you have a table; what they don’t tell you is that it is because the restaurant is a ghost town at this hour. So how is it that Italians can last so long between lunch and dinner? Aperitivo.
It is my favorite time of day, the Italian equivalent of Happy Hour. It lasts for several hours between work and dinner in at most bars in every Italian town. The process is simple: walk in, order a drink, grab a plate and help yourself to whatever is at the bar. Salami, fresh bread, a variety of spreads, chips, nuts, cheeses, olives, etc. Sit at a table on the piazza, chat with a friend, and enjoy. Feel free to grab seconds. All for the price of a cocktail, which can be as cheap as 2.00€. For a backpacker, this is as cheap as dinner gets.
My favorite aperitivo (photo above) thus far was in Portovenere, a small coastal town 30km south of the more famous Cinque Terre. Stunning scenery, gorgeous sunset, a calm sea, and a great aperitivo overlooking it all – another little Italian slice of heaven.
My love affair with Italy has been an on-again-off-again “thing” for 15 years. There is so much about this country that I adore: the language, the culture, the food (duh), the architecture, the history, and the people. I can’t get enough, and I keep coming back for more. It was only a matter of time before I fell for an Italiano.
However, I never imagined it would be a 2 year old Italian boy that would make my heart melt. I kid you not, last night we walked along the beach at sunset, holding hands and laughing as we tried to run from the waves.
All joking aside, Folco is just about the cutest child I have ever seen. This summer I have watched him grow just about every day, and he is developing an adorable personality. He is starting to understand the concept of pain, and that something he does can hurt someone else. Whenever he hears the Italian equivalent of “ouch!”, he rushes to the site of the incident and offers un bacino (a little kiss) to make it better. It is so stinking cute that I have to refrain from faking injury. Tonja captured the moment on film last night and I had to share.
Credit for my second Tuscan makeover goes to “Ridere per Vivere” (Laugh to Live), an organization of performers who dress up as clowns to perform for sick children in hospitals all throughout Italy. Their site is in Italian, but if you are curious: http://www.riderepervivere.it/
After nearly 2 months in Castelvecchio di Compito, I have grown accustomed to certain family rituals and routines. Folco naps around 2:30pm; and if he misses his nap, you will pay dearly for it around dinnertime. Vera & Anna have summer workbooks and every morning they will attempt one their many stall tactics. Simone smokes his pipe immediately after every meal and assumes the same contemplative position leaning out the window. Tonja is perpetually 30 minutes late, no matter how important the event.
There are also routines in how the village functions. Trash is taken to the curb on Thursdays, compost on Mondays, Glass/Plastics on Tuesdays and paper on Wednesdays. Maria (neighbor) takes her evening passegiata around 8:30pm. And the grumpy old Italian man across the street, I still have never gotten his name, is up at 6:00am watering the street…yes, the street…I have no idea why.
But perhaps the most reliable and punctual event is the arrival of La Postina – the mail woman – at 12:30pm sharp, 6 days a week. What is unusual about our Postina is that she is barely recognizable as an employee of the Poste. Rather than an official van or car, she drives a motorino (scooter). She wears a skimpy tank top, and her skin is approaching Oompa Loompa status under this Tuscan sun. Actually, the only thing that separates her from any other Italian woman riding a scooter is the fact that her helmet has a small yellow stripe with the words “Poste Italiano” written on it.
The other half of this regular event occurs at 12:29pm, when Toast lifts his head and perks up his ears, hearing the sound of the motorino’s engine around the bend. He races down the stairs, oblivious to any obstacle or small child in his way, and takes off down the street. What happens next is not so unlike the American phenomenon of dog vs. mailman: a mess of cursing, barking, and screeching breaks. La Postina parks her motorino in the middle of the piazza and, leaving the engine running, proceeds to deliver mail to the surrounding 15 residences. Meanwhile, Toast continues to bark with all his might, but never once gets within biting distance of La Postina.
The two proceed to have their ridiculous territorial dance for the entire 10 minutes that she is in town. And then she hops on her moto and disappears down the hill. Toast returns upstairs to his bed, proud of his accomplishment in “scaring” off an unwelcome guest.
Another universal phenomenon: it appears that all dogs chase all mail men.
Reason #197,759,063 why Italy is good for my soul and bad for my waistline:
This cornetto al cioccolato (chocolate croissant) cost €0.90 and my cappuccino was another €0.90. Breakfast of Champions. I don’t think I need to write anything more on this topic, the photo speaks for itself. mmmmmmmmmmmm.
This morning the kids, Tonja, & I left somewhat early to accomplish some errands in town. Tonja had the idea to stop off at Nonna Piera’s (Grandma) house for lunch. She gave Piera about 90 minutes notice of our arrival. If I were Piera, I would have been stressed to the max – her lunch plans just went from a party of 1 to a party of 7. We asked if she needed anything from the store. Just some bread, if we wanted it; Piera had everything she needed already. Keep in mind that this is an elderly woman who lives alone; I am still amazed that this impromptu visit is not considered to be a burden (we do this regularly).
We arrived a little later than expected (per usual), and I was immediately intoxicated by the aroma. The table was set and everything was ready for us, Piera started filling the plates with the first course. Yes, we were to eat multiple courses for lunch. She proudly announced, “Un mezz’ora fa, questi pomodori erano nel mio giardino” – A half hour ago, these tomatoes were still in my garden.
This sauce, complete with fresh basil & onions (also from the garden), was so simple – and yet, it was absolutely exquisite. I am not sure exactly how Italian women do it, but they all seem to possess some magical ability to whip up copious amount of pasta with sauce made from scratch – all in a minimal amount of time. I pray this ability is contagious and that I am able to absorb some of it before I leave Tuscany.
Oh Lea. Her mother calls her Leona because she has the spirit of a lion. Strong willed and intense, she is the most stubborn child I have ever known. Any battle will be lost if she digs in her heels, so you best avoid battles at all cost.
One day, in an effort to get her out the door against her will, we tried to play the “Bye Lea, see you later” game…the one where you pretend to leave and after a few seconds the child comes running to you in fear of being left behind. Our whole family left the house, said “Ciao Lea, a dopo” and climbed into the car. We made a big production out of starting the car and even drove down the street a little way. Most 5-year olds at this point would be in hysteria. Not Lea. We had to turn the car around, drive back up the hill, and when we arrived back at the house, she was right where we left her. Sitting on a stair, calm and strong. I must admit that I am relieved I will not living here when she enters adolescence, she is a force to be reckoned with.
Lea had a nasty broken shin and was in week 5 of the 3-month recovery when I arrived. But you better believe that cast doesn’t slow her down. She still hops, skips, runs, and jumps with her sisters. She climbs to the top of any jungle gym at a park.
She runs through sprinklers, frolics in the sea, and swims in her cousin’s swimming pool, with her cast carefully wrapped in a garbage bag and tape to prevent the moisture from entering. We have no other option – once the other kids have their swimsuits on, Lea is going in too…regardless of the doctor’s orders. I see a lot of my sister, Madeleine, in her. Weird, they are both third in a 4-child family. Note to family planners: beware of the spirit of the third child.
The thing that is most incredible about this little one is that when she is not in some form of battle, she is the softest, sweetest, most gentle little girl. Lea loves to cuddle, always shares her gelato and makes me feel like the most beautiful woman on earth any time I wear something she hasn’t seen before. “Wow Mamma, guarda Kadreen. E’ bellissima.” (wow mommy, look at Katherine, she is so beautiful)…simply because today I put on earrings or a new skirt. Seriously, the innocent compliment of a child can boost self-confidence ten fold.
I know I am not supposed to have favorites, but Lea is mine.
Regarding an unborn child, parents usually say something to the effect of: “No preference on boy or girl, we just want the baby to be healthy.” Somehow I doubt this was the case for Simone and his 4th child.
With three healthy, happy, strong, independent, stubborn daughters, I can only imagine how much Simone longed for a son. Just one more Being to bring a slight balance to the testosterone-to-estrogen ratio. As my father can attest, the 5 female-to-1 male family ratio is just plain cruel. (In the words of Phil Wax, “Four daughters is my punishment for being sexist.”)
Two years later, I can see the pride in Simone’s eyes when he looks at his son, Folco. The name is unique in Italy, but it is an Italian version of the word “folk,” meaning “of the people.” And Simone has communicated to me, on numerous occasions, that little Folco is “il prossimo Che” – the next Che (yes, as in Che Guevara) – fighting for the people against capitalism and economic inequality. How’s that for high parental expectations?
Folco is entering the Terrible Two’s, and it has been incredible watching him explore his world and test its limits. His personality is truly starting to shine, especially in his facial expressions. He is learning new words at an alarming rate and now, with my help, he’s also picking up the English equivalent. He is the only one in the family who says “Katherine” instead of “Kadreen,” but his favorite Italian words are:
“VIVA!!!” said when he is thoroughly enjoying something new.
“Sta zitto!” – a command meaning “Be Quiet” – usually said when he hears the dog, Toast, barking.
“Ciccia” – a word for kids meaning “meat.” This child is a carnivore.
Folco is a master artist and proudly decorates any surface or wall. He adores his “bee-chee” (tricycle) and has no fear going down the hill by himself at a gut-wrenching speed. He will always let you know he is finished eating by helpfully clearing his plate, aka throwing whatever is left on the floor.
He is truly a charming toddler, this Prossimo Che, and bacini (little kisses) from him simply melt your heart.
Last night after dinner, I went upstairs to help the older girls with their summer workbooks. Vera was working on Math (multiplication & division) and Anna was working on Italian Grammar. Sidenote: if you ever feel up for a challenge, try to assist with homework in a foreign language. I gave myself a pat on the back just for simply understanding the instructions.
Anyway, around 10pm I heard Simone (father) yell from downstairs:
Simone: Katherine, lo vuoi il caffe’?
Simone: Sei sicura?
Me: Come Sempre!
Simone: Sei sicura come sempre? O lo vuoi il caffe come sempre?
Me: Tutte le due!
Simone (muttering): Madonna, che faccio con questa ragazza?!?
Simone: Katherine, do you want an espresso?
Simone: Are you sure?
Me: As always!
Simone: You are always sure? Or you always want espresso?
Simone: Holy Mary, what am I supposed to do with this girl?!?
There are many stages in language learning, and I am by no means fluent. But if I am able to be a smart-ass and if parts of my personality are starting to shine through, then clearly my Italian is improving. One month down, one more to go!
Italian families usually have a few 5-liter glass jugs that they take to a cantina to fill with wine for the week. It basically cuts out the middleman, so the wine goes straight from the barrel to the table. It is local, it’s cheap (8 euro for 5 liters), and it’s damn good.
Chianti, Brunello, Barbaresco, Barolo…these aren’t names of Roman Emporers, but given the importance of wine to Italians, they might as well be. L’aqua fa male, il vino fa cantare – Water makes one sick, wine makes one sing. Buon vino fa buon sangue – Good wine makes good blood. The Italian proverbs on the topic of wine are endless. And last night, I had the opportunity to witness first hand the intensity of this dedication to wine for the average Italian family.
Tonja had taken the kids to a Start-of-Summer party and I had opted out, choosing instead to spend some time on my own in Lucca. I met Simone (father) at the train station and we drove back to Castelvecchio, stopping briefly for an aperitivo (pre-dinner drink) and a chat before heading home to the madness.
It was just after 19:45 when we left the bar and as we neared the bottom of the hill to Castelvecchio, Simone received a phone call from Tonja…after a cheery “Pronto” to answer the call, Simone received the worst news possible. Everyone was safe, and dinner was almost ready, but we were out of wine. I smiled to myself in amusement as I listened to the conversation, and I prepared myself for a fun car ride.
Italians are crazy drivers, but I have never seen anything like this. We whipped around turns, Simone cranking the wheel with all his might right and then left…he floored it as we passed slow-moving vehicles around blind corners. This was no laughing matter, we were about to have una cena senza vino – a dinner without wine.
Stop #1 – “Dio Madonna, e’ gia chiuso.” The nearest mom & pop store that sells wine had already closed for the evening. After a brief pause for cussing and a U-Turn, we were back on the road in a race against time. The clock read 19:58, and the nearest large grocery store was a few kilometers down the road. The next option was Euro Spar – a large grocery store by European standards, but Simone was virtually positive it closes promptly at 20:00. Insert more cussing, this time in Lucchese dialect, but I didn’t need to know the words to understand their meaning. We were approaching a situation of catastrophic proportion.
Stop #2 –The lights in the Euro Spar were already dimmed and the entrance was locked. “Dio Maiale, e’ chiuso!” Closed. Weather forecast: cloudy with a chance of sobriety.
But what was this? A customer exiting the store? A glimmer of hope? Simone sprang out of the car and raced to the exit before the automatic doors could shut him out. Two minutes later, Simone came out like a champion holding his prized trophy – a 1.5 liter bottle of Tuscan house red. We were saved!!! Hallelujah!
When I asked Simone what the employee said to him when he entered through the exit he said, “Lei era Italiana, quindi ha capito.” She was Italian, so she understood.
Do you remember eating Eggos as a child and how it was of the utmost importance that each tiny square received syrup? I remember being quite certain that the world would end if even the triangular parts around the edge were left out. My sisters were the same – they would tip poor Mrs. Buttersworth upside down and sway her back & forth for what seemed like an eternity, all in the name of total sugar saturation. The fact that the syrup ran onto the plate once the waffle was cut didn’t ever enter into the logic.
Today, during lunch, I found the equivalent for Italian children: grated parmesan on pasta.
Let me interject with a brief statement that up until now, I have feared cooking for these kids. Vera (9) has already lectured me on the proper way to make espresso (so as not to give it a burnt flavor), as well as the appropriate order to eat your courses (pasta always before salad and/or meat). Italian kids are raised in Italian kitchens on food cooked by Italian mammas and nonnas (grandmas). Combine that with the pickiness of children in general and o mio dio, you have one tough crowd. My first attempt was something simple: Rotini pasta in a tomato sauce with onion, garlic, and zucchini.
I observed the Italian equivalent of the Eggo-Syrup phenomenon when we all sat at the table. I started grating fresh parmesan for Anna (7), but I made the mistake of grating the cheese just over the center of the plate. She quickly informed me that I missed a spot and she would not eat a bite until there was cheese “Qui e Qui e Qui e Qui” – here and here and here and here. Every noodle had to have a morsel of cheese on it before it was ready for consumption. And just as I added the last bit of cheese to the last noodle, what did Anna do? Mix it all together, of course. So apparently the illogical obsession with the meticulous placement of a topping is a worldwide trend. Who knew?
I do have to brag a little bit. All parties were very satisfied with the pasta. Apparently I can cook for Italian children. Phew!
A few days ago, I initiated La Passegiata – the evening stroll – with just the girls: Vera (9), Anna (7), and Lea (5). We had several family friends over for dinner and when the conversation turned to more serious topics (recent passing of the grandfather), I thought it was best to distract the kids.Le Lucciole.
Tutti fuori! Everyone outside! We threw on our shoes and took off down the hill. I was just when the glow of the streetlights faded that I saw them. Le Lucciole. Dancing specks of light, twinkling like stars all around. I am so grateful to have learned, in Olympos, how to truly appreciate the moment. Because in those precious moments time froze, I was a child again, and I frolicked through a field with three girls, trying desperately to capture a firefly.
I went for my first gelato today while I was wandering through Lucca. The Gelateria owner, a charming old man, asked me for my order and I went with my favorite 2-scoop combination: pistachio and nocciola (hazelnut). He proceeded to come out from behind the counter, hand me my cone, and said to try both flavors simultaneously. I obviously honored his request and took a bite, grinning ear to ear as my taste buds danced in delight. He then said with a cheeky grin, “Una donna, quando lei mangia, non puo essere piu sensuale.” If he was 40 years younger, I would have been weirded out by this comment, but there was something so sincere in genuine in his eyes that I didn’t take offense. A woman is never more sensual than when she eats.
Yes, Italy…I do believe we are a match made in heaven. Though I must confess that I fear what this means for my waistline.
My efforts to go back to the “natural look” without any makeup appear to be for nothing. Within 24 hours of nannying in Tuscany I had a makeover complete with a fabulous pink sparkly nail color, courtesy of Vera (9) and Lea (5). There was no way I could say no to these girls, especially when they have whole-heartedly welcomed me into their family.
So I present the new, maybe not-so-improved, “Kad-leen” Wax:
I boarded the Lucca-bound train at Roma Trastevere station, unsure of what to expect upon my arrival in Tuscany. The 4-hour train ride was unreal, worth every euro cent in and of itself. I marveled at Michelangelo’s dome topping St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa somehow still managing to defy gravity. I passed countless lavender and sunflower fields, streams of purple and yellow for miles on end. The Mediterranean Sea, just as brilliant as I had left it in Turkey, though now more blue rather than Turquoise in color. The Italian sun, even this early in summer, so strong and so so hot. “Do not open windows…air conditioned cabin,” the sign read. False. The stuffiness was suffocating and the only way to combat it was to close my eyes and dream of gelato.
I was on my way to Tuscany to meet the family I will be living with for the next 2 months. A family of six, all four children under the age of 10, and a mother who wants them to learn English. Am I insane? Probably.
Tonja (host mom) and I had been corresponding via email since mid-March. She contacted me after reading my profile on Work Away. The website puts people in contact for volunteer work-exchange opportunities around the world. The expectation is 20-25 hours of work per week in exchange for full room and board.
While Tonja didn’t present any set schedule or hours for working, she seemed completely reasonable in her expectations. For me, it was too good to pass up. The town is Castelvecchio di Compito, and it sits on top of a hill 20 minutes outside Lucca. Shockingly gorgeous, incredibly small, and very off-the-beaten-path for tourists.Over the next 2 months, I will eat, sleep and breathe Italy. I will learn Italian recipes inside an Italian kitchen. I will partake in headed debates in Italian over simple topics such as what constitutes a “typical” Tuscan work week. I will sing Italian lullabies. This is exactly the type of immersion I have dreamed of for so long.
I knew the risks – I could end up working much more than 25 hours/week, or the family could be a disaster, etc. But if La Merda truly hit the fan, I have my life in a backpack – I am extremely mobile & flexible – I could just leave.
But upon my arrival at the Lucca train station, I was greeted by the biggest hugs and warmest smiles of Tonja, her mother-in-law, and the kids. My heart melted instantly, and I knew this was absolutely what I was looking for. Here I am, finally under my Tuscan sun.