Borromean Islands, Stresa, Italy [Take 1]

Each week I fall a little more in love with the region we’ll live in for the next three years. We’re close to Milan, but as nature lovers we’re most excited about the lakes and mountains. By which I mean some of the world’s most beautiful lakes and the frickin’ ALPS. I grew up amidst cornfields in Indiana. My enthusiasm is legit.

Borromean Island Isola di Pescatori Lake Maggiore

There is usually a point in our day trips when my husband and I look at each other with that dumb expression of disbelief: we LIVE here. Woah.

Earlier this month we drove to the beautiful town of Stresa, on the west side of Lake Maggiore. It’s a charming resort town, with grand shore-drive hotels, well kept homes and lush vegetation. It’s also an excellent point to catch a boat ride to one or all three of the Borromean Islands.

Living a short drive from places like this diffuses the pressure to plan the perfect day. We hopped in the car, set the GPS to “Stresa” and just went. Signs pointed us toward the lake, where helpful parking attendants guided us to the appropriate car park and explained parking rates, boat tickets and which islands we’d most enjoy.

Isola di Pescatori Isola di Pescatori - Borromean Islands - Lake Maggiore

Isola dei Pescatori was our first stop.

Isola Pescatori Marina

It’s a picturesque fishing village, with narrow streets and historic architecture. The island is the only of the three Borromean Islands with permanent residents. There are fifty of them.

Isola Pescatori Steps

We ate an excellent lunch of local cheeses (Italy tip #1: ALWAYS get the local cheeses), grilled lake fish and handmade whole-wheat pasta at Hotel Belvedere. Then we wandered the passageways between the buildings to explore the variety of souvenirs and gifts for sale. The relaxed and unpretentious atmosphere won me over!

Fish Nets Isola di Pescatori

Our next stop was Isola Bella. We spent so much time wandering our first island that we didn’t have much time to explore the palace and gardens, which is the whole point of visiting Bella. (You pay up front for the number of hours you want to park. Being on a island, it’s difficult to get back to re-up!) We decided to save our Euros for another day and wander the even narrower passageways around the palace. This island felt more crowded, but I won’t hesitate to return and explore the gardens. They appear to be magnificent.

Lake Maggiore Rocks

We skipped Isola Madre but look forward to returning and exploring the botanical gardens and palazzo.

Ice Creams

Clearly we just scratched the surface, but I can’t keep this gem to myself. It’s a must see if you’re in the Lombardy region!

10 Bits of Wisdom from 35 Years

I have now spent 35 years on this earth.

It sounds like a lot in some ways, but it doesn’t exactly feel like a lot. At least, I don’t wish to have been alive for fewer years.

So many of us are preoccupied with looking young, feeling young. While I don’t care to look or feel particularly old, I do find a lot of satisfaction in feeling like I look just right. Just as I am.

Top 10 Life Tips Wisdom

I also find satisfaction in the course of my life. It has required 35 years to get here. I’ll take them. And all the joys and heartaches they’ve brought to make me who I am.

What I’m liking about 35 is that I feel finally have a few things figured out.

  1. Only you are responsible for your happiness.
  2. You are not responsible for anyone else’s happiness.
  3. Taking care of yourself is the greatest gift you can give to the people you love.
  4. The only thing keeping you from being who you want to be is the decision to do what it takes to be it.
  5. You need far less stuff than you actually have.
  6. The best way to make a good meal is to start with good ingredients.
  7. Worry is the most ineffective and least beneficial expression of love. So much so that you should stop counting it as such.
  8. Being, living and enjoying life is as great a personal achievement as any.
  9. Every inch of this planet is covered with something to learn about and better understand.
  10. None of us is right about everything. Or most things. But that doesn’t mean we’re all wrong, too.

This year my birthday approached with a surge of reminders to simply celebrate another year of life. The surge left a flood of gratitude, for having the opportunities to see magnificent places; for having shared parts of my life with amazing people who are thriving in other parts of the world, or who are no longer a part of this world, or who are fighting to stay in it. To have been in the right time and place for all of it. And to be here, now.

The August Break

Moving to Italy in July requires some mental preparation. August is vacation month here. Everyone takes a couple weeks at some point to head to the beach before school starts in September. Which means it’s really hard to get things done, such as setting up the Internet in the house you move into on August 1 (because if you don’t move in by the first, you won’t move in until September). So we’re connected to a cellular hotspot-style thingy that has a data usage limit to hold us over until our router is installed (in a 20-25 business day window). This means I’m not able to upload photos from our recent adventures, but wow. (You can catch some over at Instagram for now.)

Every day I open the shutters and think, “Holy sh!t. I LIVE here!” I look forward to sharing photos, but they don’t share the bell songs from the convent up the street, the cool morning air, the sound that thunder makes, the fragrance of the lavender outside the kitchen window.  No photo of our trees (fig, hazelnut, apple, kaki and magnolia among them) can convey my excitement for the seasons with them. A picture simply cannot express the tranquility I find while pulling weeds from the poor hostas while the boys sit on their little Ikea picnic table and play with Play Doh in the shade. Every day I understand why people fall in love with Italy, without even passing through our gate!

Then we take a quick day trip, to Lake Maggiore, or on a funicular overlooking Lake Como, or to go shopping in Milan – or just a walk into Varese town center for gelato or a panino – and the feeling of disbelief is overwhelming. We never expected this to be a part of our story (and it almost wasn’t, but that’s a whole story unto itself). And yet here we are. (With gorgonzola dolce layered with marscapone in the fridge.)

Is it possible to explode with gratitude?

Move-In Day Eve

We’re in our fifth week of living in a studio loft hotel room (with a mostly frosted glass wall to the bathroom). We’ve been here long enough that it feels normal. The kids are comfortable navigating the busy breakfast bar. The staff knows us. I expect to see Bertie’s face plastered against the glass while I’m in the loo. My clothes haven’t seen the inside of a closet or dresser in 7 weeks but it doesn’t really bother me any more. I haven’t dirtied a pot in more than 30 days and I’m glad to not have the dishes to wash. (In fact, I just ate my 100th meal out.)

But the end is in sight: tomorrow we move into our Italian home!

The truth is, I’m in a blissful place. A twilight between reality and a dream. I fritter away the quiet dark time after Lights Out on Pinterest, looking for decor inspiration for our front porch, balconies, outdoor space and kids’ bedroom. I search for tips on gardening and drying herbs, contemplate raising chickens, daydream about turning the figs into jam for the insanely delicious cheese we’ll eat all the time. I study Italian for making small talk at the playground behind our house, introducing myself to the nearest baker, helping the kids make new friends. I keep a list of places to see in Italy and write down everywhere that looks interesting.

Where our life in Italy is right now is but possibility…

and to be real, I’ll add: and the potential for disappointment.

It’s an ugly thing I do. In my mid-20s I was trained to look critically at everything around me. That habit is a hard one to shake. Day after day I looked at each project that crossed my desk and each idea that crossed my mind and deconstructed it: how might it not work? What is this missing? How could it be better? Can I show this to the world and proclaim, “This is THE BEST!”? (It’s sometimes paralyzing as a blogger.)

Then there’s the uglier thing I do, when I convince myself that I can’t possibly be worthy of the best. MY life can’t be that great. I plant seeds of discontent before I have a place to sow them. It’s self-sabotage:  “Yes, we’re moving to Italy but it’s going to be HARD.”  “We get to see all these amazing places but we have the kids and they can be so much work.” “We’ll live in a big old house but it’s going to be too cold in the winter.”

But you know what? None of that has to be. My friend Heather recently wrote this guest post for Military Wife and Mom about choosing your attitude. I’ve been thinking about this a LOT lately, as I play whack-a-mole with those old habits, bashing them down as they rear their hideous heads. My attitude is the only obstacle between now and having an incredible time throughout this assignment.

And so I choose enthusiasm. This is going to be a great assignment!

Our First 25 Days in a Hotel Room

Hotel living could be charming if you’re a see-and-be-seen type. For us, living in a hotel with our two small children is more of a hurry-up-and-shovel-down-your-food-before-the-kids-cause-a-scene experience.

The restaurant and front desk staff no longer ask our room number. The boys are sure to say “ciao-ciao-ciaoy-ciao” to Andrea the Maintenance Guy daily now that he has fixed our AC. The worker at the pool next door doesn’t need us to explain that we’re staying at the hotel any more. We’re fixtures.

We have no kitchen. Not even a microwave to heat prepared foods from the grocery store. We eat out every. single. meal. I used to make every. single. meal. (Excluding the times my husband cooked breakfast; his fried eggs are the best.) Now I have all that time back.

This is not a good thing, not for me at at least.

Our routine is upended, though a new one is starting to flicker as we have fewer errands to run. The hardest part is that Bertie has been fighting naps so hard that he’s only napped in his bed twice since we arrived. My quiet time is now bought with screen time. One-on-one time with each kid just doesn’t happen.

My infrastructure for self-care has disappeared. Walden isn’t in school; we don’t have his bike or the jogging stroller to break up the day with a run. I don’t have my weekly babysitting swap. I haven’t established any group activities (which is hard to do in summer anyway). Because we’re staying in a studio loft, my husband and I don’t even get to talk with the lights on after the kids fall asleep (two hours later than their bedtime in the US).

So I’m left with Being in Charge of the Kids as my Thing to Do. It’s really hard not to take it personally when I’ve asked five times, with no response, for Walden to come stand in line with me if he really wants grocery store sushi for lunch. Or when Bertie pushes over a chair. Or when they both run away from me to play hide and seek at a super store. Or when Bertie throws his food on the ground at a restaurant because it isn’t a f***ing peanut butter sandwich that’s cut just the right way. Or when they run off through the sprinklers before dinner arrives. Or when they play the “do that to ME!” game. And so on.

But. They have been really great with other children, at parks, around the hotel. The language barrier is tremendous, and my guys have been so very brave and considerate with other children as they struggle to understand each other. It has been a great learning experience, to have to stop and consider how to approach someone who doesn’t immediately understand. I am so proud of them.

Anyway. The hotel. I’m done. I’m ready to build a home again, to have a kitchen and couch and bedrooms. To have a bathroom with a solid door. Our household shipment will be weeks behind us, but I’m ready to settle into the community we’ll be living in for the next three years. To walk to the park, the bakery, the cafe; to make that mega trip to IKEA that’s inevitable with every European PCS.

Expo 2015 (with kids)

We’ve lived in a single hotel room in Italy without a microwave for more than two weeks now. Staying in is no longer an option. So we braved the heat last weekend and made a family trip to Expo 2015 in Milan.

Expo 2015 with Kids

If you’re not familiar with Expo, it’s the world’s fair. Perhaps you’ve seen the iconic remnants of previous world’s fairs, such as Seattle’s Space Needle, Atomium in Brussels, Hemisphere Park in San Antonio, and, uh, the Eiffel Tower. Every few years a city builds an impressive temporary village to host laudatory exhibits of inventions and contributions of countries around the world. (Random but relevant-to-my-life fact, Omaha hosted the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898. You can view information about it at the Durham Museum.) This year’s theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

We didn’t learn all that much with our small kids in tow, but we did have a really great day.

Expo 2015

Israel, Brazil, China, South Korea, Belgium, Spain, Iran and, of course, USA all graced us with air conditioning at some point in the day. We did learn about the innovations in irrigation developed in Israel, fermentation in South Korea, aquaponic farming in Belgium. Brazil’s pavilion features a giant climbing net that was fun for everyone, though not particularly toddler friendly. We had to scootch the kids past the Czech Republic pavilion, which boasted a splash pool. (Had we known, we would have brought spare clothes!) Pavilion Zero was an excellent place to rest, with short films about food projected on a wall in a large, dark room.

Collecting rain

There is also a Children’s Park, which is a series of activities that engage each of the senses. At the first stop, a dome descends upon your child and sprays a scent, which they then match to an herb in a terrarium next to it. Not your usual fair fare! They loved collecting “rain”water in funnels to spray a wall of plants. Of course the big guy’s favorite was a bike that powered a fountain. A separate KinderSport area looked like a blast for kids 5 and up. Our guys were only allowed to try one activity: jumping on a post to shoot water in the air.

Expo Parade

We caught a parade of mascots. The kids loved it, and we were amused by its Mario Brothers-meets-Charlie’s Chocolate Factory homespun feel. A parade makes any event feel more special.

Expo Food

We ate brisket, fish tacos, fresh fruit punch, Belgian frites, Nutella crepes (at the Nutella concept bar, which is basically my whole motivation behind the visit), a tiny Pimm’s cup, gazpacho and sangria, ice cream, sushi… it was all necessary to fuel our 10 hours there!

The Expo website and app provide daily schedules of talks, demonstrations and interactive activities. We barely scratched the surface during our visit.

Had the weather been cooler, I would have tried hard to peel away to Vino, the Italian wine pavilion. I felt dehydrated and the thought of selecting just 3 of the 1300 wines that offered to taste was overwhelming. (By the way, there are water bottle refilling stations around, and they spout sparkling water.)

It was a long day, but there was something fun for each of us. Don’t miss it if you have the chance!

Buongiorno!

Ciao!

We’ve arrived in Italy and the next chapter of our adventure begins! We haven’t seen much yet, other than the outskirts of Milan, distant Alpine foothills and a few vineyards as we drove the autostrade to the nearest American base yesterday. Our jet lagged preschoolers were in tow as we took a driving test, registered in the system, bought SIM cards for our phones, set up a bank account and so on and etc. To be honest, it seems we accomplished more in a day than we did in our first two weeks in England, and that made the kids’ delirious ravings so much easier to tolerate. Especially given our living arrangement.

Hotel stay

The Milan Expo 2015 has all of the local long stay-style accommodations booked up, so we’re sharing a studio loft. It’s a vastly different experience from when we arrived in England four years ago. We don’t have separate rooms (unless you count the mostly-frosted glass wall to the bathroom), there are no closets, there is no kitchen or microwave, and there certainly is no in-room washer & dryer. We do have a mini-fridge that didn’t work for our first two days. And we have a bidet and a mirrored ceiling in the loft above the master bed!

I read my book club’s last pick, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, on the plane ride over. It was a perfect choice for giving me perspective and taking away my right to complain.

Hotel collage 2
The hotel itself is a bit quirky. It claims to be part art gallery, and the kids love the cardboard furniture and gigantic plastic molded snails. The restaurant is good, though a pricey alternative to cooking at home (which I normally do at least 6 nights a week), and my youngest child doesn’t actually “sit” and “eat” proper meals these days.

Hotel collage

We do get free access to the “summer club” next door, which is a collection of pools, sunbathing sand pits, grassy lawns and play areas. It seems that 5pm is a great time to catch the DJ and do some group fitness dancing in the front pool. There’s at least one bar, snack stand and restaurant. We do have great pool weather right now. (You know, sunny and hot.) So, really, we’re winning here. Bonus points for free Wi-Fi!

We’re looking forward to overcoming the jet lag, finding a place to live and getting settled. The house hunt begins tomorrow. Here we are and here we go!

 

All I Have to Say About Military Spouses

I wasn’t the kind of girl to be impressed by a guy in uniform. When I married one, I reassured myself and my civilian friends that I had no intent of wrapping myself in the label of “military spouse.” I had two degrees and more than my share of defiance, and I refused to allow the military part of my marriage to define me.

I went to work. I quickly decided that spouse group meetings weren’t for me; not for young, childless professionals but for young stay-at-home moms. I wasn’t the first foolish 20-something to assume that a difference in preference of parenthood was a non-starter for deep friendship. I endured deployment after deployment with the support of a handful of very cool women who were married to my husband’s work buddies. I found my way into the Omaha community, through work, volunteering and participating in my faith. Then my biological clock chimed and the timer at the end of our interminable tour sounded. Then we had a son and moved to England.

This is where my grand plan unraveled.

So much that previously defined me vanished. (My job. My time. My family back home.)

All that was left was being a stay-at-home mom and military spouse. I felt lost. I scrambled to cling to something else but ultimately was consumed by both.

Four and a half years later I understand the privileges that come with these realities. I’ve emerged from the exhausted fog of new parenthood, a milestone which makes everything clearer and easier to balance. The rewards of being a stay-at-home mom to two preschoolers are leagues deeper than the brain-draining days and nights of babyhood. And in the past year, my net of new military spouse friends has changed my life.

M3X-back

Remember how easy it was to make friends in the dorms in college? How the simple fact of converging in the same space for a defined period of time served as a catalyst for life-long friendship? Now remember how that vanished when you tumbled out into the real world. This past year brought that feeling back. Hundreds of us filed into orientation in August, filled in forms with our interests and launched back out to our families with a few new names in our heads. We stalked the Facebook group and seized opportunities to connect before they vaporized. We had 10 months.

For me, those connections have proven that the label “military spouse” holds too much weight. Yes, we all share the experience of being married to someone in the military, but that’s the only universal. Some of us can come together to make an amazing book club. Others can meet up at the playground twice a week, year-round, for an intense workout while driving fully loaded jogging strollers and forging new friendships. Then there are those who graciously understand when you need extra support to do the things you must do for yourself.

Some of us go to work in an office, some of us telecommute to a job we left behind, some of us now do the work of Life as we wait for the right time to find work outside our homes.

We are artists, writers, lawyers, activists, educators, engineers. Nurses, accountants, managers, business owners. Professionals. Dreamers. Organizers.

We are, some of us, also moms.

We are also wives.

And under all that, there is one thread that ties us together. It’s one thread that the “military spouse” label overshadows, diminishes. It’s that we are great friends, to whichever friends we make. We know that good-bye doesn’t always (but may) mean forever. Together we cast a wide net, connecting someone else’s friends with ours, sharing information on the best neighborhoods and the food you can’t miss, offering places to stay when one of us is nowhere. We are willing to help someone we barely know because sometimes we are the new person in town, alone and in need.

We aren’t just military spouses. We are regular and eccentric and kind and well-traveled people who don’t get to stay in one place too long… who just so happen to be married to someone in the military.

Yes, I DO Want Something for Mother’s Day

Mother's Day

Has your Facebook feed filled up with links to articles about what moms actually want for Mother’s Day? Gift guides? Or that moms want nothing except for lots of little not-somethings?

I haven’t asked specifically for anything this year. My husband already encouraged me to pick out a locally crafted necklace at Southern Makers last weekend. I don’t feel desperate for a day away from my kids. I’m not exhausted. I’m not stressed. I have plans to be out of town over the next two weekends, after all. I have a really good life.

But I do still want something. Perhaps you want this, too:

I want one day of whole-family happiness. One peaceful day. A day without whining. No shouting, no crying. No grumpiness allowed. I want to be relaxed and joyful with my family for an entire day, because those kinds of days are the best gift in life.

Perhaps there will be a time when the boys are a bit older that the whining and crying cease. I’m not wishing this time away. I just want us all to enjoy each other just the way we are right now. Surely that’s not too much to ask of my 2 and 4 year old boys, right?

I’m chilling some wine anyway.

Boulogne-Sur-Mer, France (If You Will)

Before we hopped the pond, I convinced a friend to join me on an extended day-long bus trip to the fishing village of Boulogne-sur-Mer in France. This was big; it was her first whole day away from her kids for fun in 10 years. Thankfully our husbands were able to work out a work schedule that freed them up for kid duty in a very hectic, busy time. I knew nothing of this town, and started to entertain ideas of regret as our bus approached Boulogne-sur-Mer along the waterfront. We were greeted by weary sea-blasted, worn buildings – all seemingly closed.

Boulogne Sur Mer Harbor

We stepped off the bus at the fish market. I made a mental note to cook more fish. What an impressive selection! In minutes I understood that the locals weren’t used to English visitors and, particularly, speaking English.

Boulogne Sur Mer Fish Market

Crab Claws

We wandered in the general direction of the bus driver’s pointed finger, on the hunt for breakfast. There was a coffee shop I bookmarked on Trip Advisor. We couldn’t find it in real life.  (Silly us, we thought that the driver, as our tour guide, would have provided maps.) Up the hill we went, dodging dog shit and vomit slicks past nightclubs that exhausted thirty-something moms would hardly have any interest visiting. We snaked side streets back down the hill in hopes of finding a decent croissant and perhaps the brilliant market that was promised. We found a market. It was far from bustling, though in a certain way vibrant. We also found chocolate croissants, which made us feel much better about the day, even if the worker at the bakery was startled by our pronunciation of the word. And then… we wandered our way to the proper market. The lovely town center around a sturdy stone church.

Boulogne Sur Mer Market

Does anyone else instinctively drool around rows and rows of beautiful produce? Fresh eggs and butter? French cheese? Ooooo, I want to go back! Tomatoes

Table of Berries

Tart Vendor

Having oriented ourselves, we found the city’s most noted cathedral and  its moated castle, amidst a proper tourist area that felt much more like the destination we had expected.

Boulogne Sur Mer Notre Dame

The castle held a museum with an eclectic collection of art, from Greek urns and Egyptian artifacts from the Louvre to modern paintings. Admission includes a tour of the catacombs, too.

The Notre-Dame Basilica isn’t a particularly old cathedral, having been built in the mid 1800’s atop of ruins from a previous cathedral that was destroyed in the revolution. Nonetheless the interior is beautiful.

Notre Dame Boulogne

Notre Dame Boulogne

To be honest, I was most excited to eat. If you don’t have small children, you may not appreciate how magnificent it is to sit and eat a meal FOR YOURSELF. Fresh fish for lunch. Crepes. Another stop at the bakery. At your own pace, without interruption, with adult conversation. It’s one of life’s finest pleasure. I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t even bother to take pictures.

We capped off our day with a half-hearted perusal of the shopping district. Then back to the bus for the journey home. Many families with small children took this trip, too, to see the town’s aquarium, so the ride back was less than restful. But the crying kids weren’t ours.

We should all be so lucky to have the opportunity to spend a day in a new place with a friend. Getting to know her, sharing stories and learning from her about things I normally don’t think to wonder were a wonderful bonus to our day away.