Wednesday, November 13, 2013


While at the surgical supply store to rent Jim's crutches and wheelchair after he busted his fibula, I met this beautiful lady who was there to be fitted for some special shoes. 

She was adorable, impeccably groomed by her loving daughter, and eager to share some stories.

They did not hesitate for a moment when I asked permission to take their photo. It was a lovely interaction. Although to have to deal with the aftermath of a broken leg is no picnic, the opportunity to meet these very dear ladies was an unexpected pleasure. 

A friend who has known me for 46 years asked a simple question:"So how does it feel to be the grandmother of such an adorable little person ?" 

He realized what I should have:that I have taken hundreds of photos of the baby, but that I hadn't said what it feels like to be able to take them.

When we first moved to Italy, I used to only half-joke that I aspired to be one of those Italian grandmas in the black stockings who cut the homemade pasta on the kitchen table one strand at a time, and who continue ruling the roost well into their nineties.

I now see that this pipe dream is going to require a few adjustments. Even at 66, I have to admit that it's been a long time since I saw any little old ladies in black stockings. The grandmas and great-grandmas I know look pretty hip. They usually have their hair done regularly (not covered by a dark babushka), and have a spring in their step. They know how to make pasta, but tend to buy it fresh at the few remaining pasta fresca places that turn out a light, wonderful product with their modern machines that cut more than one strand at a time. Often continuing their career (our closest Italian friend is still a practicing architect), they know how to work and play with the grandkids.

Further, although my own mom turns 89 this summer, nobody in my family has ever made it into her nineties. But then again, she grew up in Minnesota, not Italy, where I see many of my neighbors still in charge at ninety-plus.

I recently found the 33-year-old first photos taken of our newborn son, and as new parents, my ecstatically happy son and daughter-in-law were pleased to see them. They show how much newborn father and daughter resemble each other, and highlight for me my own bumpy journey to grandma-hood.

As I write this, I am thinking of the blessing given on special occasions to mark a rite of passage --the one that offers thanks "for permitting us to reach this hour." 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Looks like an ordinary mower, right? But let's take a closer look.

Still doesn't look that special. And what's that white tag on the handle? There's a sad story, here, since the tag says, "return to customer. We can't fix it."

Maybe it's defunct, but it still merits attention. After all, it was good enough for the Queen.

Not every mower comes with its own royal seal, complete with a coat of arms and French slogan. Even if it can't cut any more, it deserves to be immortalized.


The inevitability of endings has been leaving me bereft. But I am beginning to come to terms with them.

When approaching the end of our rope, we often hear
The end is in sight,
Buck up. You are close to the Finish Line.

After all the chromatic meanderings, think of the relief that accompanies a resolved chord.

And there can be some surprises. Today while mowing with the new mower and lamenting the passing of its predecessor, I looked up and saw in bloom for the first time in decades
my old French rose--
the one I bought from a now defunct company--a bush moved many times, now popped up in a new spot.

The tears roll down my cheek as I ask, how did it know that today was the day I needed to inhale its sweet perfume ?

Of brief season, it will soon be gone.  But next year?

Of my superior old mower, stamped with "by appointment to HRH the Queen," I'm thinking that the right hands could resurrect it. The gears reground. The blades refreshed. I always felt so proud and regal, pushing it around my plot.

When you are the Queen, you can probably carry on longer. Impermanence reigns more easily further down the line.

Even so, there are limits.
The Buddhists have got it right:
Remove attachment. Everything is going to change

Tuesday, August 20, 2013



(I see that I have previously written on this topic--DIFFERENT TEACHING STYLES AND ON BEING THE #1 CHILD--in a post from August 2011,

 I’m not sure about the significance of my returning to it just prior to heading back to yet another school year, my 30th at this particular institution, but here goes, anyway.)

 As every eldest child knows, it can be exhausting to be a know-it-all. No one got that more right than J.D. Salinger in his "Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, " where #1 son, Seymour Glass's suicide remains unexplained. I'm thinking that the responsibility of being the first of these excessively wise Glass children might have gotten to be too much for him.

If he had moved to middle-of-nowhere Italy, things might have turned out differently.

When you move to a new country, especially at an advanced age, all the know-it-all years vanish, leaving you with the illusion of being almost as fresh as your newborn granddaughter--that is, with everything to learn.

(Whatever I just wrote also resonates with a post from December 2012, TOUCHING HOME BASE FOR THE 5TH AND 66th TIME:DECEM...
I like that in that piece I refer to getting ready for the grandparent stage of the life cycle, and now there is a new little person in our family who did not exist before. Amazing!) 

Thursday, August 15, 2013


I'm still trying to figure out how to write this story. It's especially hard since I am still right in the middle of it.

Maybe the place to start is with a few photos. Who knows? Perhaps you can even figure out the story from them.

Here we go. In keeping with my France /Italy theme, I'm recalling a French film that I found very funny:

"The Tall Blond Man With The One Black Shoe." Maybe we could do a remake and call it "The Tall Tanned Man With The One Left Shoe."

#1.Check out our shoe mat. Never mind the cute little flowered garden clogs. We're talking about the two giant non-matching clodhoppers on the left. Now why would anyone have two left shoes, and even go to Rome with just one left sandal?

post from August 2011, you know that this Louis Ghost chair belongs in front of the dressing table in my Moroccan-style bagno. So what could it be doing here in Jim’s shower?

#3.OK. Here’s the last clue. Note that it’s the RIGHT leg that is pictured below. There are probably plenty of Sherlock Holmes’ out there who early in this posting figured out that somebody’s husband busted his right fibula, which is why he won’t be needing any right shoes for quite a while.

This Michelangelesque cast was put on at our local hospital where everyone was very nice to us. But we were warned by those in-the-know that although we should consider ourselves lucky that our little town even has a hospital with an ER, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should we allow ourselves to be admitted or have an operation there. Apparently the city is filled with limping people of all ages who did not hear this warning. Fortunately (?) our Italian friend, D, had the same injury as Jim, and after being treated incorrectly and painfully at the local hospital, he somehow made it to Rome where they did their best to straighten him out.

As soon as D heard about Jim’s mishap, he got on the phone to his Rome doctor to see if he could see Jim before all of Italy closes down for the Ferragosto holiday. That good doctor was about to skip town, but gave us the cell phone number of the Pope’s own orthopedist, who amazingly invited Jim to come to Rome immediately for a consultation. Wow!

Jim had surgery at Rome's Fatebenefratelli hospital where they put in some screws and a metal plate. He'll be in a cast for two weeks and then we hobble back to the States. Given that his leg was in such good hands, we are hoping for the best. Even better, the whole thing cost niente. No wonder Italy's economy is in trouble! But we are grateful for the country's generosity.


When you live deep in the countryside in a place reachable only by two routes, each worse than the other, this type of injury requires many adjustments.

 It's been a wake-up call in many ways--a reminder that to manage this property requires two able-bodied people, and an embarrassing acknowledgement of the things I don't usually do. Here are a few: (if you want to know why, check out my March 2011 post, ON DRIVING INTO DITCHES AND MARKETING PLUMS (EXCER... )
2.get money from a cash machine,
3.get water from the water machine in the nearby village
4.clean the pool—clearly a hazardous activity a trattorino
6.use a gas-powered decespugliatore 
7.pitchfork grass clippings to which I am highly allergic. 

I see how dependent I am on Jim's being able to do the things I avoid. We have complementary skills, which can be a good thing under normal circumstances, but it can also mean codependency. The current situation, however, has required me to step up to the plate. (Yesterday I had a driving lesson from our patient friend, an international race-driving champion, on how to stay out of ditches or stall on what can only loosely be called our “road.” Even though he’s a Brit, his basic message was the very Italian, “piano, piano.” Don't let any pushy drivers force you out of your comfort zone.) 

The bottom line? To live as we do in such an isolated setting works best only if everyone stays healthy. Not even delivery people can find our house, which doesn't bode well for getting help in a crisis.

On the other hand, people in our valley tend to live long, active lives, something to which I aspire. My mom just celebrated her 89th on August 1, so I hope to take after her.


I had intended to show this piece to my wise writing partner before posting it, but as I wrote her,

 I'm embarrassed to admit how far past my computer curfew it is, but I have been sitting on this story for way too long, and am losing the energy and time necessary to do it justice. No one previewed it and I really wanted to hear your opinion first, but I decided to take a chance.

There are so many more strange details that could have been included, but maybe they wouldn't have been interesting to anyone else, or worse, would
have sounded like whining or complaining, which would not have been appropriate.

But without a friend like you to explain the Italian hospital system, the whole experience would have been even more confusing. I’m thinking that to provide that information would be doing a public service. I think that a flaw in my piece is that it’s too much about me.”

Her answer was just what the doctor ordered, especially in explaining how important it can be for the hospital patient to have with him an assistenza. Here are some of the things we learned about being a patient in an Italian hospital:

Generally the assistenza is a family member whose role it is to stay with the patient, attend to special non-medical needs, bring food and coffee, and call a nurse, if necessary. But if someone there speaks English you'll undoubtedly be OK without.”

Surprised by this news about the assistenza, Jim wondered if the hospital provided them. The answer?
“No, they don't assign one. But there is a bell you can use. If they don't speak English you could probably make a list of words you might need. Hopefully it will only be a couple of days, right? You will probably also have tv in the room and hopefully your companion won't want to watch horrible quiz programs. It will definitely be an adventure.

When an American tourist in Orvieto fell on the steps of the Duomo and broke both arms, someone called me in and I stayed with her for the day and someone else came in at night. At least for the first couple of days. Then her son arrived from California. She spoke no Italian, and was completely unfamiliar with the Italian hospital system. But the Rome hospital will be much better prepared for foreigners I'm sure.”

Among the other surprises were the number of things the patient is usually supposed to bring for himself:
It can be useful to foreigners to know that if they go to a smaller hospital they have to bring all their personal things like pajamas, towels, soap, silverware, even toilet paper. I rather imagine that is gradually changing. At least Jim said they had toilet paper in Rome, but no soap.” And amazingly, even on an orthopedic ward, NO CRUTCHES! That meant that every trip to the bathroom incurred the risk of the type of fall that had brought the patient into the hospital in the first place! Further, even in Jim’s fancy hospital, the only chairs a patient could lean on to break a fall were the type that tip over easily. Of course there was no central phone service. It’s every man for himself with his own cell phone.

Armed with all this information and an extra roll of toilet paper, Jim had a very good experience at the hospital and is hopefully on the way to recovery. Will the metal plate and screws holding that leg together set off any alarms at the airport? I guess we will soon see.

While it’s true that there are many differences in the way things are done in Italian versus the American hospitals that we know, there is a certain charm and logic to them. As our friend explained,  

“The hospital system in itself where much reliance is still on family may be a way of cutting down hospital expenses. You don't have to pay for slippers (as I've been told you have to in the States) and the personnel is kept to a minimum.

Also don't forget that the mutual aid society in Italy is very important. And not just with the expat community. You'll always find someone willing to help out.”

In looking over my embarrassing list of things (above) that I was unaccustomed to doing, my very capable friend who has lived here for fifty years reassured me that “#4-#7 are things you couldn't do in any case. Nor could I. So you find someone who is handy do them for you. Like having my roof repaired. Or getting a sort of closet built downstairs for my gas burner. For the roof I got a good mason, and my son and I got the necessary material. For the latter a friend has offered to build it. I too had to learn how to get money out of the wall, how and when to pay bills.”

The bottom line: I hope you never have to go to the hospital in Bella Italia, but if you do, it’s helpful to know about the Italian way of doing things. Don't even THINK of allowing yourself to be admitted into even the best Italian hospital without making sure that you will have your Italian mother (or the equivalent) by your side at all times. And what about in France? In 1967, I was briefly a patient at the classy American Hospital in Paris where everything was provided. Aristotle Onassis was a patient there at the same time, and something tells me that he didn’t need to bring his own toilet paper.

All things considered, I am guessing that the Italian system would hold more than a few surprises for the French patient. 


The meaning of the Italian word "pappagallo" is: (check all that apply)

1. a shoe company  

2. a parrot

3. the gizmo into which bedridden hospitalized males pee 

If you answered all of the above, you are right!


When I was growing up, Pappagallo was the brand name of the stylish Italian shoes that we all coveted--mostly ballerina flats that were the height of "cool" for teenage girls in the late fifties and early sixties. I just googled them, and it was a trip down Memory Lane! 

I wonder if the use of the word “pappagallo” for fancy shoes and also for a male urinal was a joke on Americans? There is, after all, a similarity in shape among a parrot's beak, a shoe and a urinal. Anyway, I want those green flats!