Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Day in the Life

Now that I’ve been in Italy for almost two weeks (!), I thought I might give a little description of how a typical day here goes.

School starts at 9:30am, and it’s only a 15-minute walk from my house. But I still get up pretty early so I have time for a leisurely coffee before I rush out the door. Morning coffee is a ritual. I have this mug at home, a cheery bright yellow mug with red printing, out of which I’ve been drinking my morning coffee for over a decade. It’s chipped all over, the pattern is scuffed, the handle has twice broken off and been re-glued, but it is my morning coffee mug and no other will do. I will mourn for that mug if it ever breaks irreparably.

In Verona, I make espresso in a little moka (a stovetop coffee-maker), and that is what I usually drink, especially if it’s a very hot day. Some mornings, though, I find myself missing my big American-style mug of coffee, and I will add hot water to make it a lungo (aka Americano if you're ordering at Starbucks), plus some milk. Breakfast is light, maybe some yogurt with a piece of toast or some fruit, occasionally an egg. The Italian word for breakfast is prima colazione, which means something like “morning snack”—not a full meal.

I have two convenient walking routes to school. One takes me past the Arena; the other takes me alongside the Castelvecchio. Both are beautiful. The Arena path is much nicer in the morning; when I leave campus in the afternoons, Piazza Brà is immensely crowded, mostly with tourists, people spilling out of the restaurants… the Castelvecchio way is usually quieter. Usually I walk one way to school and the other way back, just for variety.

My “commute” is enlivened by the occasional social encounter. People often stop me to ask for directions, which is always an ego boost as it means I don’t look like a tourist, at least to the casual observer—and if they want to get to the Arena or another main attraction I can usually even help. The locals are pretty chatty, too. The other morning I was waiting at a stoplight to cross the street. Next to me was a woman chatting away on her cell phone, making brisk arrangements for errands and appointments. As she hung up the phone, she turned to me and apologized for talking so loudly, but it was necessary: “Sono la factotum fuori da casa,” she laughed. “Sai cosa vuol dire, factotum?” Yes, and I giggled, because I’d never encountered it with the feminine article. “Si, lo so,” I said, “è una persona che fa tutto tipo di lavoro.” The light took forever to change and we kept chatting; here’s a rough translation of our conversation:
“Are you Italian?” the woman asked me. “Are you from here?”
“No,” I said, “I’m American.”
“Ah! Brava, you speak Italian very well. My son was studying in the United States, he speaks English very well. You should speak English with him. What part of the United States are you from?”
“I’m from California.”
“Ah! California is splendid! We have never been there but last summer we went to New York and Washington. New York was beautiful, especially Manhattan. Have you been to New York?”
Yes, I had, and yes, I agreed, Manhattan is beautiful.
“But tell me, there is one thing I worry about. Are there tornados in California? Because when we went to the United States I was very afraid that there might be a tornado. I do not think they have tornados in New York but I heard there are many in California. Is it true?”
“No,” I said, “there are no tornados in California,” and I wonder how such a rumor even got started! “The tornados are in a region called the Middle-West, it is halfway between New York and California.”
“Ah, good, well, then, nothing to worry about.” And then our paths diverged, so she waved goodbye and walked on before I could mention earthquakes.
For the rest of the morning I had stuck in my head that famous aria from Rossini’s Barbiere di Seviglia, in which Figaro declaims, “Sono il factotum della città!

Sometimes the interactions are not so pleasant. Today a young man stopped me in the street and asked me a question, very earnestly—I assumed for directions or information—but so quickly that I didn’t catch a word of it. “I’m sorry,” I said, “Could you please say that one more time, slowly? I didn’t understand all of it.” He leaned in, towering over me. “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?”
“Um…no, I don’t think so.”
“I am sure I’ve seen you before. I wouldn’t forget that face. My name is Stefano. What’s your name? Aren’t you English?” He tried to grab my hand.
“I’m late for school,” I muttered, and set off at a quick trot, occasionally throwing a glance over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t following me, wondering how he thought I’d buy that line about knowing my face when I was wearing these enormous sunglasses, and realizing with resignation that Italian men’s reputation for lechery does indeed, alas, have some basis in truth.

The first class session goes from 9:30am to 1:00pm, with a coffee break around 11:00. Very civilized; school should always be like this. We leave our books in the classroom and saunter down to the bar, where we drink a cappuccino. It’s also an ideal time for a snack, like a bocconcino (a tiny sandwich, just a plain little bun with coldcuts in it--no condiments, cheese or veggies) or a pastry. Those of us who feel inclined to economize might bring a piece of fruit or a yogurt from home instead; the proprietors don’t seem to mind. After half an hour we stroll back up to school to finish our lesson.

On Mondays and Fridays, the formal lessons end at 1:00; students have the afternoon free. On Fridays, this usually means heading out for a weekend excursion; on Mondays (in my case, at least), it means doing errands—bank, grocery shopping, laundry—and studying. (And writing this blog.) Tuesdays and Thursdays, we have an hour and a half break for lunch (again, as it should always be!). Sometimes we go out for pizza, but more often, I either pack a lunch or go home during the break, since this is more economical. Usually a sandwich, but this week I got creative with rice salad (also called riso alla greca), which is great because you can make it ahead. Start with cold cooked rice. Actually, since they only had rice in really big packages at the supermarket, I bought this blend of rice, farro and barley instead. I don’t know if it’s correct (certainly farro salad exists, but it’s done differently), but it’s delicious, and probably more nutritious than plain white rice. Anyway, you throw in some variation of chopped vegetables, ham, cheese, maybe some hardboiled eggs or beans or oil-packed tuna, and you season it with olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar, salt and pepper. Even better after it’s been refrigerated a few hours or overnight. After lunch we reconvene for two hours of conversation.

Our teacher, the delightful G., steers the discussion, teaching vocabulary and idiom; so far we’ve talked about modern art, cars and driving, family life, jobs, tourism, cultural stereotypes, and, sicuramente, food and cooking. It helps that we have a very friendly group; people like to talk. The intermediate and advanced students have conversation class together. The first week I was here, I was placed in the intermediate class; it was about right for my conversation skills, since I was years out of practice and am still working to recover everything I’d forgotten and to improve as much as possible, but it was also frustrating, because the grammar we were studying was very basic and I didn’t feel sufficiently challenged by the lessons. I asked the instructors if I could move up a level, and on Tuesday I was placed with the most advanced students. There are just three of us and we’re knee-deep in the marshland of subjunctive verbs, tense sequences and conditional phrases, which is exactly where I need to be. The grammar exercises stopped being easy, so I feel I’m getting much more out of them!

On Monday, the intermediate and advanced students had language lessons together, and we were assigned a composition exercise. We were given a series of three pictures and told to write a story based on these images, in groups of two or three:

I was grouped with the two other advanced students. We also happen to be the youngest students in this section by far, and, apparently, the ones with the most vivid imaginations. Disclaimer: I didn’t come up with the plot twist; that was the inspiration of one my classmates, who is also a monk. No, really. He lives in a monastery and everything. Apparently these Franciscan novices have a slightly twisted sense of humor. (Confidential allo babbo: io non ho scelto il nome di nostro protagonista!) Here’s our collaborative effort, errors and all:

Una bella mattina, Giorgio si svegliò alle 7 e mezzo. Guardò la finestra e vise il sole che sorgeva. Era lunedì, e Giorgio sapeva che sarebbe dovuto andare a lavorare, ma mentre faceva la barba, decisi di non andarci. Andò invece a fare una passeggiata nel bosco vicino. Giorgio sapeva che il bosco era molto pericoloso, però andò lo stesso. A un certo punto, mentre camminava, e apparso un lupo grande e di aspetto cattivo. Giorgio aveva due scelte: arrampicarsi a un albero, o lottare contro questa strana bestia. All’ improvviso, Giorgio si ricordò di quanta trista era la sua vita: abitavo da solo, non aveva ne amici ne parenti. Avevo soltanto un compagno: l’alcool. Allora si è arreso all’ attacca del lupo, e così morrì Giorgio, l’uomo più sciocco mai vissuto.
One beautiful morning, Giorgio woke up at 7:30. He looked out the window and saw the sun rising. It was Monday, and Giorgio knew he was supposed to go to work, but while he was shaving, he decided not to go. Instead he went to take a walk in the nearby woods. Giorgio knew that the woods were very dangerous, but he went anyway. At a certain point, while he was walking, a big, mean-looking wolf appeared. Giorgio had two choices: to climb a tree, or to fight this strange beast. Suddenly, Giorgio remembered how sad his life was: he lived alone, and had neither friends nor family. He had only one companion: alcohol. So he surrendered himself to the wolf’s attack, and thus died Giorgio, the most foolish man ever seen.

I warned you it was twisted.

Wednesday afternoons we have an excursion around town with the art history instructor; last week it was a tour of the Roman ruins. This week: Medieval Verona.

Conversation finishes at 4:30, excursions slightly later. Once in a while we students will do something as a group, like meet for drinks or go see a movie, but most nights we are left to our own devices. I come home and drop off my backpack before going for a walk or running an errand—for example, to the vegetable stands at Piazza delle Erbe—and then come home, take as much time as I feel like to cook dinner, and sit down to write or read. (I fully admit that right now I’m reading purely for pleasure, mostly mystery novels. But I’m on my last one, and then I’m only going to read books in Italian for the rest of my stay!) Occasionally I turn on the TV while fixing dinner, just for the extra language practice, but on the whole I’m rather cut off from the world when I’m at home; I don’t have Internet access in the apartment, and since there is no land line and I only have my American cell phone (expensive to use here), I rarely talk to anyone else. I thought I’d be bored and lonely without my communication toys and mindless entertainment, but quite to the contrary, I am loving this quiet solitude. I enjoy having the time to read and write purely for fun. And yet I’ve still been able to have a real social life while I’m here! Believe me, I won’t be ending up like poor old Giorgio…

And by the way, please don’t think I was making fun of our friend Mr. Monk or being disrespectful. I fully respect his chosen course. Although I’m not religious, I do think I understand what it’s like to have a vocation. I’m not on my chosen career path because it will make me rich or famous, nor because it is convenient or stable or even remotely straightforward. I chose to become a scholar not only because I wanted to; I felt I needed to. I could not—cannot—imagine finding satisfaction in a life that is not dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and also to its dissemination. Some of us are called to our careers by God, others by Philosophia. Had I lived in Verona in its Scaliger heyday, I feel quite certain that I would have gone into the Church for this very reason: a convent was for centuries the safest space, sometimes the only safe space, in which a woman could devote her life to study.