Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Don't read unless you like hearing me complain

Today we went back to Ikea, fine-tuned our kitchen plan, and ordered all of it, plus a few rugs and other odds and ends too bulky for us to haul home on our own.

It was a very unsatisfying trip, though, one of those days when one thing after another didn't go the way we'd planned.

We had an appointment for noon, so we took the 10:15 train, had a caffe and waited around the Parma train station for half an hour, and caught the bus to Ikea--which only runs every two hours. But when we presented ourselves at the Ikea kitchen department, we discovered that the very nice man who was on deck to work with us spoke no English, even though we'd specifically asked for an English-speaker. I was willing to plunge ahead, but trying to make dozens of decisions about the nuts and bolts of a kitchen in an atmosphere of linguistic confusion was just too nerve-wracking. We had to wait till two o'clock to get an appointment with an Ikea kitchen expert with some English proficiency.

So we shopped for a while and had an Ikea lunch (and yes, they do serve Swedish meatballs, in regular, vegetarian, and chicken versions).

Yesterday we'd had lox, which was a bit of a treat after two weeks of cured pork products. Today's lunch was less satisfying (mains: lasagne for Danny, a salad with shrimp for me), in particular the vegetable side of fennel, which we were sort of excited about until we realized that the fennel was (a) boiled, (b) tough, and (c) ice cold.

Italian food is great, but a lot of their vegetable dishes seem more a cliche version of British cooking: boiled, soggy, and flavorless. Why do Italians put up with such icky vegetables? Do they eat things like this at home?

At two we had our appointment with Alessandro, who spoke pretty good English and was delightful and also quite beautiful, in the way that so many Italian men are. But the appointment stretched on and on, because things had to be checked and printed and so on, and we watched anxiously as the time for the 3:47 bus back to the Parma station drew closer and closer. We also had to absorb the frustrating news that the soonest the new kitchen can be delivered is...April 9. So a few more weeks of living with one burner and no place to put anything.

Finally we were done. Danny and I sprinted down to the check-out, hoping we could somehow make the bus. Of course sprinting in an Ikea is no joke--there were miles (literally, I think) between the kitchen department and the purchasing endpoint. Once we got there, all we had to do was pay. And yesterday we had finally--finally, after two weeks!--gotten the new PIN for our Italian bank account debit card, so we were all set to pay for our new kitchen with euros we'd deposited back when the exchange rate was much more favorable to us than it is now.

But our bank, in its wisdom, wouldn't permit us to charge more than 1,500 euros on our bank card, and the bill for an entire kitchen was considerably more than that. A lovely Ikea staffer helped us figure out how to pay that much with our bank card and the rest on a U.S. credit card, and another gave us the gift card that we're entitled to because of Ikea's current kitchen promotion, and a third fetched the kitchen stool that we were carrying home with us. By then, though, the bus was long gone. And the next one wouldn't until almost six o'clock. 

By now it was almost four, and we'd left home a little after ten this morning, and much as we love Ikea we were pretty sick of being there. Plus I had gotten into that home renovation frame of mind where an extra hundred, or thousand, dollars here or there starts to seem inconsequential. So one of the nice Ikea folks called us a taxi, which we took to the Parma train station.

Instead of having an old-fashioned meter box, the taxi showed the fare on the rear-view mirror. So our driver could watch the growing dismay on our faces when we came to a stop at a railway crossing and spent two euros waiting for an empty, four-car train to finally go by. The whole trip lasted about 15 minutes but the fare ticked up awfully quickly and the total came to 14.50 euros, or almost 18 dollars. Even to someone in home-renovation mode that seemed a little steep.

Then we had to wait a half-hour for a train in the Parma station, which discourages loitering by having almost no places to sit and no area where you're not standing in a brutal draft. By the time we staggered back to our apartment, we weren't feeling at all celebratory, just glad that we don't have to go back to Ikea again tomorrow.

Instead, first thing in the morning the electrician is coming. We hope he will rearrange the gas line for our new stove, put new plugs where the new kitchen is going so that we can plug everything in, and put up all our light fixtures. But after today I am braced for things to go less than smoothly.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Kitchen decision-making

I've fallen behind on my blogging, partly because slowing down seems to be in the air here, and mostly because we've been spending so much time planning, worrying about, and fighting over the when and what of our new cucina.

The apartment originally had a smallish kitchen behind a formal dining room that opens off the front hall, opposite the living room. At some point the owners made the dining room into an eat-in kitchen and used the former kitchen for...we're not sure what. Storage, maybe?

Italians take their kitchens with them when they move, including the appliances and cabinets, and when we bought this place there was no kitchen left in either location. Faced with the challenge of an almost blank slate, we've been debating whether to keep the kitchen in the front room (the "new kitchen") or move it back to where the kitchen was originally. Just in the last four days we've gone back and forth on this question at least twice. This has led to some marital stress.

We gave ourselves a deadline of today by making a plan to go to Ikea (known in these parts as "ee-KAY-a"). Ikea has a big store outside of Parma, not far from us, and you can get to it from here by public transportation, a train and then a bus. Ikea is where we're getting the kitchen, and to figure out the pieces we had to know where the kitchen was going to go.

So last night it was decided: we're putting the kitchen in the back room, the "old kitchen." What clinched it was that Danny really wants to have the dining room table by the window, which is where the sink, stove, and so on would be if we went with the "new kitchen" option.

In real-life version walls won't be transparent
I like putting the kitchen in back because it will mean we can sit around the dinner table after eating without looking at the dirty dishes in the sink.

During our visit today we spent more than an hour with one of Ikea's kitchen planners, who thankfully spoke quite a bit of English. To the right is what we came up with, as rendered by Ikea's nifty kitchen-planner program.

To the left is what the room actually looks like at the moment. We have to check a few of those measurements...

And here to the right is the "new kitchen," which is going to revert to being a dining room, but which we've made into our temporary camping kitchen while we wait for everything to get organized. (At the moment it's where all the high-powered electrical outlets are.) I captured Danny making pork cutlets for our dinner tonight on our Ikea induction hot plate. The dining room table will eventually go sort of where he's standing.

What will go on the other side of the room is still under debate.

We're going back to Ikea again tomorrow to finalize the kitchen plan and pay for all of it, including delivery, set-up, and installation.

But while we were there today we picked up a bunch of other things. At the top of our list were a few light fixtures. We've not only been living without heat until recently, but also without any lights in most of the rooms. We're still making do with a flashlight and a few plug-ins. The light in our temporary kitchen is actually part of a mood-lighting sort of lamp that will go in the living room as soon as we get the light fixtures up. To do that we're inviting in an electrician, whom we're happy to pay to climb up a ladder to install them on our ten-foot ceilings.

So we bought light fixtures. Also food-storage jars, extension cords, a bathmat, a couple of sconces, and some other odds and ends. Then we hauled it all home.
At the bus stop. Ikea here seems to do all its business on weekends--during the week it's pretty empty.

You can't see it in his bag, but Ikea sells real cacti as well as ceramic ones and Danny bought a second specimen. He's put it on the living-room windowsill, next to its older brother (on the left--you can see it has started blooming) and a basil plant that Danny bought at the supermarket a few days ago.

Everyone keeps saying how exciting it must be to buy a new kitchen, to say nothing of all this other stuff. I did feel a real rush when we finally had a worked-out plan. There's so much anxiety, though, so many decisions, so much negotiating. It's a little too exciting for my taste. I think I'd really rather blog.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Today's grievance

This morning I went to a qi gong class that was conducted mostly in Italian (although the teacher, Patrizia, insisted on translating a few things for me). I was pleased that I understood about 80 percent of the instructions. It helped that Patrizia spoke nice and slowly and repeated things several times--I hope not just for my benefit.

That's her on the left. I took this photo while Patrizia and two of the other students were admiring a picture they'd just taken of themselves. The class is held in the community center's martial-arts dojo. Evidently a lot of Italians are into this kind of thing.

In further pursuit of some minimal fluency, I am trying to make myself get at least a little of my on-line news in Italian, so this afternoon I read a few articles in Corriere della Sera and felt like I grasped the essence, at least.

I also watched part of an Italian movie (Tutto Quello Che Vuoi, "Everything You Want") on Netflix. Although both the kids' slang and the old poet's high-flown language are way over my head, I caught enough of the dialogue that I could follow along. (It helps that the plot is cliched enough to be pretty obvious.)

In addition, I wrote a 144-word message to our friends down in Montagano, in Italian, which took me about an hour to compose, check, and correct. It's probably full of infelicities but I think it will be comprehensible.

My point is that I am working at this, and little by little I'm seeing results.

Then I opened up DuoLingo and saw my 68-percent fluency badge drop back to 67 percent as soon as Duo realized it was me.
This really does not seem fair. 

But then I remind myself that I'm about to take my second hot shower in two days, and patience with myself and with DuoLingo seems a bit more possible.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Va bene!

We have heat. We have hot water.

The whole apartment is warm. The toilet seat temperature is unnoticeable instead of heart-attack-inducing. 

We can take a nice hot shower.

Life is good.

This morning the gas man arrived as promised and turned on the gas. Then Romano called the company that services our hot-water boiler and used his magical knack for getting things to happen sooner rather than later. (We call him the "'crat whisperer.")

A short while later Michele and Lorenzo (I'm not sure which is which) turned up. They took the boiler apart, cleaned it out (the water here is full of minerals), put it back together, and made sure all the taps and radiators were working.

There was a problem, however. A valve in the bathroom needed to be replaced, and until that was done...no hot water in the sink, no showers. And that required a plumber. On a Friday.

Could we have gotten this close to getting clean and still be denied for the whole weekend?

We asked them to recommend a plumber who might come today, and they did. This time Pam made the call, and eventually Rodolfo showed up--three hours after originally scheduled, but we were just grateful he was there at all. He quickly replaced the valve, and now everything is working.

Danny and I celebrated with a glass of pinot nero (that's what they call it here) and some deliciously lamby lamb stew made with meat from our Egyptian butcher, sitting at the table in our now pleasantly warm kitchen. And next we're both going to take a long, hot shower.

Life is so, so good.

And yes, I'm going to bring the GasPlus lady flowers on Monday. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Zen of Italian bureaucracy

Two days ago Pam called the gas company (the aptly named ENEL) on our behalf to find out why the gas line for our apartment still hadn't been turned on, when we'd submitted our application back on March 1. The gentleman who answered assured her there was no such contract. When she gave him the contract number, he said, Well, then, the documents aren't complete. She then read him the email from ENEL saying, "The documents are complete."

"Ah," he said, "now I see. They called and there was no answer." The phone number we'd given them was Pam's cell, and after ascertaining that this was indeed the number on record, she assured him that she has had it on her at all times and no calls have come in from anyone at ENEL.

He again looked through his papers or his computer or his girlie magazine and said, "Hmm. There is a note here that there is a 'technical issue.'" What kind of issue? Not specified. Could Pam call the local branch that was supposedly responsible for connecting us and find out what the problem was? "I don't have that number," he said.

But not to worry. "They will connect the gas in the next few days," he assured her. "And then they will call you. For the second time."

When you've lived in Italy for a while, Pam told us after reporting this conversation, you have no choice but to develop a Zen sort of attitude about the mysterious ways of the country's bureaucrats. "There's no point in stressing about it," she said. "You just have to take it as it comes."

But Zen notwithstanding, Pam decided to look into alternatives just in case, and yesterday she called GasPlus, a smaller, more local gas company that has an office right here in Fidenza. Pam presented our problem to the woman at the GasPlus office, who said she would call ENEL and find out what was going on. Ten minutes later she called Pam back.

"I have been living in Italy for thirty years and I thought nothing that happens with Italian bureaucracy could surprise me," Pam subsequently told us. "But even I am flabbergasted."

What the GasPlus lady had discovered was that since ENEL had dallied so long without activating our service, our contract had automatically been voided. But no one at ENEL thought to tell us. The mysterious "technical issue" was likely that our contract no longer existed. Said Pam, "This is a new low."

This morning Romano and I went in to the GasPlus office and signed Danny and me up for service. As usual, I had to sign dozens of pages of forms, about ten signatures in all, agreeing to god knows what. All the pages were then photocopied and stapled. Then Ms. GasPlus called up the technician to find out when he could come to our apartment and turn on the gas--a five-minute procedure, we've been told.

"He says the earliest is next Tuesday morning," she reported. That meant another long weekend of icy sponge baths and freezing rooms, and my face revealed my distress. The GasPlus lady looked none too pleased herself.

"Just a minute," she said, and got back on the phone. I'm not sure whom she called, but after a few minutes she had good news: someone will come to turn on the gas tomorrow at 9:30 in the morning.

I am braced for disappointment. But if it happens, we will have warm rooms and steamy showers. We'll be able to wash dishes in hot water. The toilet seat will no longer be shockingly, painfully cold.

In that case I'm going to bring the GasPlus lady a bunch of flowers or one of those big chocolate eggs.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Totally drought-tolerant

Italians seem to have a crush on the idea of deserts. We've been looking in a lot of home-goods stores, and I've noticed they all offer fake cactus plants and faux succulents. Rendered in ceramics, plastic, or metal, these artificial desert flora are even lower maintenance than the real-life versions but can still give your casa that exciting Death Valley look. Here's a sample from our shopping trip yesterday.

In metal...

...metal above, plastic below...



...and more plastic
I'd love to buy all of them and turn our living room into a faux desert preserve, but keeping them all dusted would probably be a nightmare.

One of our favorite local trattorie has an impressive display of barrel cactus in the dining room. They are plastic, too. And, as you can see, very much of a piece with the overall decorative scheme. In this photo they kind of match the clientele, too.

Danny, being a lover of both deserts and desert plants, already bought a real cactus when he was here in November. It has been living happily in our living-room window ever since. If the weather continues to warm up, it will soon move out to the balcony. It looks like it even might bloom.
To round out the plant theme, let me report that yesterday Danny chose some (real live) herbs for the kitchen windowsill while we were shopping at OBI, the local version of Home Depot The only ones on offer were thyme, oregano, sage, marjoram, parsley, and rosemary, but they had dozens of each. We bought the first three and hope to make good use of them.

Today's accomplishments

We still have no heat and no hot water, and now we're also waiting to hear when Vodafone will install our new "iperfibra" internet service. But we have made some small bits of progress.

Tomorrow's project: Installing the interior shelves
Danny almost singlehandedly got our massively heavy medicine chest up on the bathroom wall. This is a huge life improvement, because it means we at last have someplace besides the floor or the bidet or the windowsill to put lotions, toothpaste, eye drops, and other necessities. 

It also means we now have a decent-sized mirror in a good location. I'm scared that when I look into it tomorrow in daylight I'm going to see that cold-water sponge baths aren't keeping me as clean as I'd hoped.

Meanwhile, having gone to the town tax office yesterday and registered as a garbage creator, today I was able to walk over to the town dump and claim our official recycling containers.
Food waste on the left, paper on the right

An unlooked-for bonus was about 20 pounds of free bags for different categories of recycling. I was glad to get them, but I had to carry them home, a mile's walk that suddenly felt very, very long. As I trudged along, living without a car momentarily seemed ridiculously primitive. Sort of like living with no hot water.

Sorry, I don't mean to whine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Soup's on

I love looking into the frozen food cases here to see what kinds of things people eat at home day to day, and one thing I've noticed is a lot of vegetable soups. This gratifies me, since I'm a big vegetable soup fan myself.

Many of the Italian soups are pureed, in all kinds of combinations--spinach and potato, squash and carrot, lentil and potato. There are also all kinds of minestrone, bags of veggies cut up into small pieces, often beefed up with grains or pasta.

A few days ago I bought a bag of frozen vegetable minestrone, a combination of carrots, beans, tomatoes, squash, potatoes, some dozen vegetables in all. How wonderful not to have to do all that chopping, I thought, especially since we are operating in a minimalist kitchen at the moment.

The soup was a cheap supermarket brand, so perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that it was pretty disappointing. The vegetables tasted flat, as though they'd died before they were frozen. It tasted the way I imagine food in an Italian prison does. Even adding a bouillon cube didn't help.

Yesterday, ever hopeful, I tried one of the pureed versions. The label promises "Vegetable Lightness" and notes that this soup has 50 percent fewer calories than the average soup made by this company. But what appealed to me was the idea of an all-vegetable soup, not the calorie savings, as I hope the salami and bread in the picture prove. 

The bag felt a little lumpy; I thought maybe the soup had thawed and then refrozen at some point. But when I opened it I discovered a mass of what looked like little...well, what? ginger cookies? frozen turds?

They seemed most un-soup-like, in any event. But when heat was applied they melted into a brown puree very much like the one depicted on the label.

Unfortunately, "Lightness" apparently required a total absence of salt and, once again, a minimal amount of flavor. This soup, too, was a dud. (And considerably less attractive, visually, than the zombie minestrone.)

Of sociological interest, though, is what seems to be an Italian predilection for freezing things in little nuggets. The freezer case also features bags full of cubetti of chopped spinach, chopped chard, chopped mushrooms, and other items that I presume cooks want smalls amount of to put into a pasta filling or a sauce. This actually seems pretty smart. Do we do that in the States, and I just haven't noticed because I never buy frozen food at home?

Tonight, while waiting for our dinner to cook, I chopped up a mess of fresh vegetables (romano beans, peppers, carrots, leeks, mushrooms, celery), topped it all off with some tomato puree, water, and a couple of "classico"-flavored bouillon cubes, and made myself a big pot of non-frozen vegetable soup. It tastes really good, if I do say so myself. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Il cervello anziani

That means "the aging brain," and I am keenly aware that that's what I'm working with. What has brought this to my attention is my efforts to learn Italian, a project that doesn't seem to be going all that well lately.

Before we returned to Italy I took lessons pretty much twice a week with Nando, my delightful Bay Area Italian teacher. To the right is an example of his handiwork. I wish I could get it tattooed on one of my forearms, for easy reference.

I've also been religiously doing DuoLingo every day (I'm up to a 275-day streak) and reading at least a little Italian every morning. I dip into an Udemy online intermediate Italian course fairly often, too. Plus I'm living in Italy, damn it, surrounded by spoken, written, and hollered Italian! By now I should be practically fluent, right?

Instead, I usually find myself resorting to flinging a few nouns and verbs around, usually of the wrong tense and/or gender, and trying to act out most of what I want to convey. (My impression of someone dying of arugula poisoning, because I can never remember how to say "My husband is allergic to arugula," consistently amuses Italian waiters.) And when someone speaks to me in Italian, which people occasionally try to do, I rarely can understand anything but the first few words. By the time my logey mental computer has figured out the beginning of the first sentence, my interlocutor has hurtled on and I'm left begging, "Scusi, scusi, parla piu lento, per favore." (Although actually I just noticed I've been using the wrong tense there, too.)

It doesn't help that I've been spending most of my time since we arrived here with Danny, who is firmly mired in English, and our friends Pam (American) and Romano (Italian, but English-fluent), for whom speaking English with us is infinitely easier than helping us limp along in moron Italian. We need them to do the talking for us with, for example, the gas company (which has yet to turn on our gas...it's 12 days and counting), and even in non-crucial situations letting them be our spokespeople is the path of least resistance.

Moreover, many Italians apparently study English in school, and lately we seem to be running into people who are eager to practice. So when I try to speak Italian to the waiter at one of our favorite restaurants or the man who runs the vegetable stand, they immediately switch to English, which they are much more proficient at than I am at Italian.

I became really discouraged when I began slipping on DuoLingo. A little badge on the site tells you how fluent you are--a wildly optimistic number always, but it makes me feel good. I was stuck at 67 percent for ages (which means I am about 13 percent fluent in fact, but whatever). Then one day I got a little electronic fanfare and Duo the owl announced that I'd moved up to 68 percent fluent. I swelled with pride. Then I got a few answers wrong--I mean, like, two--and the number slid back down to 67 percent. This went on for more than a week...I'd momentarily get to 68, then fall back again. Even my laptop knew I wasn't putting enough effort into this.

This week, finally, I seem to have made it to 68 percent semipermanently.

Yay me. But my problems with Italian comprehension out in the real world persist. 


So now I am determined to put my back into it. A few days ago Pam and I went to see "Il filo nascosto," the movie starring Daniel Day-Lewis that we know as "The Phantom Thread." Like most movies here, it was dubbed, and I grasped perhaps 8 percent of the dialogue. But I did get when the nasty sister says to the girlfriend, "He likes a bit of belly." (Right?)

Che brutto!
Luckily for me, the visuals were as important as the words (although man, those clothes were ugly!). And just listening hard to Italian for an hour and a half was salutary.

This week I'm making more of an effort to get out and deal with things in Italian, without Pam to help me. I went to the garbage office this morning, determined to get my recycling containers, only to discover it's only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Well, I am going back tomorrow.

I am also trying harder to engage in conversation with my neighbors. Today I asked these ladies if I could photograph their chihuahas, and we proceeded to discuss how cute the dogs are. (Diplomacy is part of speaking a foreign language, after all.) Both ladies and dogs were very patient with my halting Italian.

I was pleased with myself, since in addition to a few sentences of conversational Italian, I gathered new evidence of Italian canine fashion, old-age mobility, and feminine footwear, all things of interest to my readers.

My friend Franca, who patiently allows me to babble in Italian with her for long stretches (in exchange for letting her talk to me in English), has been busy or out of town since we got here. I'm looking forward to seeing her later this week and hoping that she has time to help me clear some of the rust off my language brain. Maybe I can get up to 15 percent real-world fluency before it's time to go back to California again. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018


Today we were offered a special treat: Pam and Romano invited us to an afternoon performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater at the Old Duomo in Brescia, about an hour from here via the Autostrada. We piled into their car and drove through rain and fog to the city, which is both an industrial center and an ancient town that dates back to Roman times.

The concert was in the Duomo Vecchio, a huge, round Romanesque pile that dates from the 11th century. The impression when you first walk in is spectacular.

We found seats under the soaring ceiling and waited for the concert to start. But we were instantly aware that this cavernous church was not heated. In fact, it felt downright refrigerated--at least 20 degrees colder than the temperature outside. 

After a contemporary two-piano work that sounded utterly muddled in the echoey space, it was time for the choir from the Parma conservatory, where Romano teaches singing, to take the stage. The soprano soloist, Kim Somi, was one of Romano's students, which is why he'd particularly wanted to attend the concert. We'd heard her sing last summer at a rehearsal of Cosi Fan Tutte, and we were excited to hear her again.

Rossini knew how to write for a cathedral, and the chorus was spectacular--perhaps the most beautiful choral sound I've ever heard. And when Kim's voice soared about the chorus, chills went up my spine--or would have, if my spine weren't already totally frozen. We were so cold and uncomfortable in the church's punishingly hard pews that anything less than a sensational performance would have been unbearable, but these singers made us forget momentarily how miserable we were.

After Romano and Pam went backstage to congratulate Kim and the others, the four of us repaired to a cafe across the way for hot chocolate con panna (with whipped cream) and a brioche. We figured we'd lost a dangerous amount of calories just keeping ourselves from freezing to death, so we'd better replenish. 

When we got home, even our chilly apartment felt relatively civilized, and once we turned our heater on the bedroom quickly became deliciously toasty. So today we had two more reasons to be grateful: beautiful music, beautifully sung, and not having to live in the Middle Ages. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Easter eggs

Easter is a few weeks away, but the Italian version of Easter eggs are everywhere from the supermarkets to fancy confectionery stores. They are large chocolate eggs, quite a bit larger than the typical American chocolate eggs. This very elegant candy store on the piazza had some of the biggest I'd seen.

(That purple thing on the right that looks like a lamp is a chocolate egg.)

Then today the Latteria downstairs, our source for cheeses, hams, and all sorts of other good things, put their own chocolate eggs in their window.

Dio mio! How much chocolate is that, and who buys these things? Clearly more research is needed. .

Don't read unless you like hearing me complain

Today we went back to Ikea, fine-tuned our kitchen plan, and ordered all of it, plus a few rugs and other odds and ends too bulky for us to ...