Being a Foreign Mom

My Italian is coming along, slowly, after seven months in Italy. I can get by in many cases, with lots of awkward pauses, if I let go of feeling embarrassed to sound like a toddler (with a bad accent to boot). There is usually much pointing and gesturing. Of course, many people who do speak some English are quick to recognize that speaking English to me will result in a quicker and less painful interaction. Those people are never the people who need to explain complicated things.

My vocabulary is growing, allowing me to recognize words to get the gist of the postings at the boys’ school before I take a picture to run through Google Translate. Bertie’s teacher speaks English fairly well, thankfully, but sometimes we get stuck. I can guess the English word for the Italian word she’s trying to translate, but neither of us knows if I get it right.

And so there are times when we get close but miss. This time it was “bring a white t-shirt to decorate” when she meant “bring a white t-shirt that you have decorated.” Not a big deal because I didn’t put off bringing it in until the last minute, but the incident gives me pause to wonder. How I can avoid these misunderstandings in situations that actually matter? How fast can I learn this language? How long do I have to be a foreigner before I learn to ask the right questions?

Being one of a few foreign moms at my sons’ school is teaching me so much. I hardly considered what it might be like to feel so “Other” until I had to live it myself.

Maybe there’s a mother at your children’s school who is clearly from another country, who doesn’t speak English very well. You know who she is, don’t you? She smiles a shy smile at you, with thoughts of things to say, questions to ask racing through her head as the words to get them out slip past just as quickly. The rehearsed “my son likes to play with your son, can we meet at the park to let them play” gets lost in the moment, sometimes, and when it does come out she smiles at you with knitted eyebrows when she doesn’t understand what you are saying in response, about how complicated your days are with work right now and how hard it might be to schedule something because of Life, but you’d like to in four weeks when you’re back from holiday. She doesn’t know all the words for the gossip about what happened in class, or what the teachers are up to, so she stands there at the gates, trying to listen or not, maybe sending messages home on WhatsApp to look busy and not just alone. She’ll nod greetings to the moms who recognize her in the places where they all cross paths. She gives her children the biggest hugs and says something to them that you don’t understand, signaling to them that it’s time to shift their brains from one language to the next.

If you see her waiting, looking like she wants to talk to someone, don’t be afraid of the communication barrier. Chances are she has learned the basics: how are you, what is your name, where are you from, where do you live, how many children do you have, how old? If she seems to struggle, don’t give up. Speak slowly. Languages take time and practice. Just like parenthood. You know how that goes.

Festa di Sant’Antonio alla Motta Varese

I dropped the ball on making a reservation for our Saturday night date. Fancy didn’t appeal to me, and I kind of liked the idea of stumbling into some place unexpected. We were turned away from three different restaurants before I suspected that something big was afoot. We made our way toward the new sushi place, which was a funny decision because in the piazza next to the sushi place loomed the beginnings of a crowd and a giant stack of wooden pallets topped with Christmas trees. Clearly we would not be sitting down for dinner this night. We ducked into a cafe for an Aperol Spritz and Googled “Varese bonfire” to learn more.

Piazza della Motta

Each year on the 16th and 17th of January Varese celebrates the Feast of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of domestic animals. The first night, a bonfire is lit in front of the church at Piazza della Motta. The next day animals are blessed after mass, then children release balloons into the air. (You can get the full story here.)

Polenta Conca

Streets were lined with stalls selling donuts, crepes and vin brûlée. Our date night dinner consisted of a four-cheese polenta in an aluminum take out tray and plastic cups of Barbera from a cheese shop. We huddled in the crowd against the cold wind, waiting for the spectacle to unfold.


A procession of torches and a statue of Saint Anthony parted the crowd. The eerily lit statue reached its perch in the open doorway of the church and then the torches lit the fire.

Lit Bonfire

Parents hoisted children onto their shoulders as the fire swept up the tower of pallets and the heat radiated into the square.


The crowd stood mesmerized by the fire (perhaps like us in awe of the fact that this could happen IN THE CITY) until the heat caused people to push away from it. Not to worry, water was periodically hosed onto the side of the fire closest to the church (where cloth banners billowed). And that fire burned big and bright.

Fire in the piazza

We didn’t stay to see the fire fizzle out. My eyes were burning when we did leave, and we arrived home at a sensible 9:30 pm.

This spectacle was certainly a surprise to us, and we were delighted to witness such a purely Italian tradition. It reminded me of the time we stumbled upon a festival in Costa Rica. Sometimes the most interesting parts of our adventures are the ones that aren’t planned, aren’t they?

Impossible to Resist Long Post About My 5 Year Old

Friday my oldest son turned five. Which I find funny to say, because I sometimes forget he isn’t already 8 or 18.

Oh, Walden. You are a force.

“Don’t forget, my name is WALDEN!” you once called to some new friends from grandma’s pontoon, as she pulled away from the sandbar. No one will forget that, buddy.

Two months ago we dropped you off at a school filled with teachers and students who couldn’t understand a word you spoke. You were frustrated; you were so used to being the star of the playground, with a flock of children orbiting you as you organized games. So you learned to make your classmates laugh! And then you made friends as quickly as you do anywhere. Your teachers are amazed at how well you have learned to communicate given how little interest you have in actually learning Italian. Your friends tell you words in Italian and you tell them their English equivalent. So now your friends are making up Italian-derived words and calling it English.

Do you see what happened? You didn’t want to learn the language so you enabled an entire class of students to invent a new one to communicate with you! Most four year olds don’t do that, you know. Probably not five year olds, either.

Every day when we leave school “Ciao, Walden!”s trail us until we get the park, where the “Hi, Walden!”s pop up as your English-speaking friends arrive. It seems Italians bundle up and hide when the temperatures drop below 65, so you kids have the run of the place.

You’ve started drawing objects as letters of your name when you sign your drawings at school. You can read entire books. You have a huge vocabulary. You can do math. You can ride your bike like a pro. You can build complex Lego sets all on your own. You play fair and nice. You can do a million things that astound me every day!

You are bright and adaptable. That means you’re watching us carefully, learning and understanding the parenting techniques we’ve taken from books and the Internet. You study them, too, and use them against us as you do your job of testing the boundaries. But, thank goodness, you are offended at the idea that you might break the rules at school.

You’re a pretty good big brother, too. Bertie looks up to you and truly appreciates when you take the time to include him in your play, which you do a lot.

You requested spaghetti and meatballs for your birthday dinner and asked for gummy hamburgers instead of going into town for a special birthday afternoon treat (so you could stay home in sweats and build new Lego sets). Sometimes you go to the grocery store with me. You always ask for sushi and Kinder Eggs when we do, even though we never actually buy those things. You definitely seem to understand that you won’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it. Because you keep asking.

Being an extroverted child with two introverted parents must be really hard sometimes. It can be for us! But know that, no matter what, we love you for who you are and you’re our favorite five year old in the whole wide world.

Funivie del Lago Maggiore

Have you ever agreed to do something that you realize is insane only once it’s far too late?

Laveno Funivie Buckets

That happened to me this weekend, as I clung to my toddler inside a bucket that dangled from a cable over a mountain at Funivie del Lago Maggiore. It was the price to pay for not wanting to carry the kids on a 3-hour mountain hike to lunch.

Laveno Funivie Bucket Lift

It was fine, of course, even better when the little dude let me put him down on the floor of the cable “car” to rest my arms. Even better yet when I turned to look back and caught a stunning, foggy view of Laveno and Lake Maggiore.

Laveno Funivie Bucket Lift Lake View

I’ve never considered that I might have a fear of heights, but in motherhood I’ve discovered that I have a fear of heights when my children are involved. From Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland, to the ravine in a bamboo forest in Prattville, Alabama, my heart leaps at the thought of one of my kiddos taking a tumble over a steep ledge. I stayed a sensible distance from the railing while gasping at the views over Lago Maggiore and was grateful that the somewhat fenced-in playground was behind the restaurant.

Lago Maggiore Fog

Vino rosso was required with lunch at the mountaintop restaurant to steady my legs for the trip back down. But it was definitely a trip worth taking.

Laveno Bucket Lift Family

A Day in Switzerland

Our drive to Switzerland is shorter than our drive to Milan. We decided to make a quick family day of Lugano-Paradiso after the internet told us we could find a funicular with a spectacular view.

Lugano (1 of 1)

That research did not reveal that said funicular – all of them, really – is closed for the season.

So we followed the path around the lake (Lake Lugano, that is) and wandered the swank shopping district of Lugano instead, ooooh-ing at Ferraris on the street and aaaaah-ing at beautiful watches selling for tens of thousands of dollars.

Lugano Watch Shop

I had a spectacular (and tourist-y pricey) pizza at Argentino in the town’s main piazza, enjoying the sun and prosecco as the kids kind of didn’t murder each other.


Lugano Candy Shop

It was a lovely day for aimlessly browsing the flea market stalls lining the streets. At least one of us was delighted to find the Over the Top motion picture soundtrack on vinyl. And that was our souvenir of this day, since furs and jewels aren’t really our bag.

Lugano Pedal Boaters

Now we can say we’ve been to Switzerland as a family (because I went to Lucerne with girlfriends, holla!), and that’s something, right?

Back Home in Indiana

Last month we traveled to Indiana for my sister’s wedding. I always love October in Indiana, particularly when the weather is perfect, as it was. The sky is a brilliant blue, the leaves are just beginning to turn, the town is a bit festive for football season (usually, so sorry about your Boilers this year, folks). Getting to see family I haven’t seen since my own wedding was just icing on the (delicious, butterscotch-y wedding) cake.

Boys on Boat

This trip marked the 12th and 13th time our oldest has crossed the Atlantic. He has spent 6 days of his nearly-5 years of life making this trip. He is, of course, a pro. His little brother, less so. Thankfully, they were merciful in their jet lag recovery and took only a couple of days to get on track.

This trip was also the first time our luggage didn’t arrive for an entire week. I don’t recommend flying Air France. We weren’t prepared for the warm, sunny early days on the lake (or the crisp, cool later days at the farm) (or the wedding!) because our carefully packed suitcase was MIA for the duration of our stay. [And I STILL haven’t gotten a response from Air France in regard to my claim for reimbursement.]

Pontoon-Lake Shafer

Anyway. These family gatherings. There’s never enough time to properly catch up with everyone. Just niceties in the buffet line, stolen greetings while you’re shuttled to photos or chasing a kid. Having lived so far from home for the last 13 years, I feel like a stranger. We know bits and pieces of each other’s lives from Facebook, at least, but we don’t get a chance to get at the surprising things that connect us. The things you learn at birthday celebrations and barbecues, or with kids in the same soccer league or schools. The things in conversations that you have off-line, one-on-one, when you’re relaxed and somewhat focused.

Fishing Boy

Of course, I wonder what those connections might be. Do my cousins who lived in Asia understand how underwhelming a return to most American food is? How overwhelming it feels to shop at a super store like Wal-Mart? The disenchantment after a string of costly weekly Target visits that yield very little that you  need?

Do my cousins who live among farms understand how special and cool it is for my guys to drive a tractor?

tractor driver

And for those who do the things I like to do, to write and take pictures, how is their work on that going? Why didn’t we find the time to talk about these things we share?

Toddler Splashing

So, the long and the short of it is that time is precious. And if you want to chat, let’s!

A Day in the Life

To set the record straight and correct the flat tone of my last posts (and to get over the annoying administrative appointment I had this morning), I have to tell you this: I love it here. I love where we live, I love living amongst Italians, I love the challenges that come with learning the language. I love that I get to see my husband so much, I love that my kiddos are in Italian preschool, and I love that every day I feel awestruck by all of it.

FallFeet (1 of 1)

This was how I started my week:

This morning Walden climbed into bed with me when he woke up. Bertie came wandering in, peeping, “Mooom, I’m hunnnngweeee.” I smooshed their fuzzy-footie-jammy-clad shoulders, shooed them off to their wooden train track and scavenged something for breakfast (oatmeal and bread-heel toast with peanut butter and shots of milk). We succeeded in getting dressed and out the door to arrive at preschool at the start of drop-off, saying our “Buon giorno”s and “Ciao”s to the friendly staff on our way to the boys’ locker. Each boy gave me a smiling hug and a kiss.

I popped the parking brake and shifted our Fiat Panda into first gear to head to the grocery store. I took my time, browsing the seasonal produce, dried mushrooms and pasta selections. I understood the cashier when she explained that her register was closing. I didn’t forget to take my card from the chip-and-pin reader (this time).

Before taking the groceries out of my car I turned my face toward the giant trees in the park behind our house, closed my eyes, listened to the sweet bird song, feeling the cool, still air.

Cold groceries are in the refrigerator. Fresh bread dough is rising on the counter. Laundry is whizzing in the basement. Facebook isn’t ding-ing much because North America is just starting to wake. And I’m paralyzed with indecision. The day is mine. There are so many things to do, and that I’d like to do. There are so many sights to see and experiences to enjoy, so many things to learn and explore. So much that I don’t know where to begin!

Of course, every day is different.

Yesterday the Panda didn’t start (the radio sometimes turns on when you aren’t in the car; the battery was drained). I had to use a trilingual 4-year-old to translate some information I had to pass along to Walden’s teacher. Today we – the whole family – spent the morning in a crowded room waiting for our appointment to apply for my permit to stay, only to learn that some of our documentation was insufficient. The sun sets by 5:30 now. Our windows are terribly drafty. The minivan is already missing a mirror.

This life is not perfect.

But it IS really, really good.

Missed Messages

Lago Varese at Gavirate

Today I had planned to meet some kind strangers from the internet to try rowing. (This is part of my strategy for making non-American friends. It will be fine.)

Then the kids put up a fight about getting to school. Then my phone stopped receiving text messages or an internet signal, and there I was, late, at the lake just out of view of the rowing place I didn’t know about, alone.

Technology failed me.

A raft of ducks shifted back and forth across the water as I berated myself for not getting an exact address yesterday. Once I drifted out of myself for a second I realized there was a pleasant commotion to it, a sound almost like gentle ocean waves, as the ducks flapped their wings and splashed into the water. (There were many ducks.)

So I sat on a dock and watched. Listened. I found gratitude for being in that moment instead of at home procrastinating on Facebook.

An Italian woman walking her dog made some exclamation to me. I gave my unmistakable dumb foreigner shrug and she repeated, “Bellissima! Septtacolare!” She approached me as I walked off the dock. I understood she was trying to ask something about beautiful photos, but… that’s as far as we got. There I was, in a beautiful moment with someone who truly appreciated it as I did, incapable of sharing it more meaningfully because I couldn’t speak her language.

I wandered a bit, half jogging, half admiring the scenery, thinking I might catch the rowing folks when they returned. Another jogger passed when I stopped to take a photo. “Hi!” he said. And instead of saying “hi” back, I just nodded and looked away. Once he disappeared around the bend in the trail, I realized that he was speaking my language. I had missed a chance to connect with another person who lives here who speaks my language. Another person who can explain to me how on earth it’s possible that the power company is actually two separate companies and you can pay one bill online but not the other. Who might know where I can buy a sectional sofa for well under 4000euro.

[There are a couple of those people in my life, thank goodness. I need to schedule some coffee dates.]

Anyway. I’ve never been much of a talker. I truly don’t understand what people stand around and talk about all the time, particularly if they don’t have something specific to say. Perhaps being a person who prefers to be deliberate in my interactions is making this language barrier extra frustrating? I can get by with all of the day-to-day stuff, using my dumb American smile at the grocery store as I fumble my words for celery and “May I please have a bag?” To not be able to communicate something I really care about? That’s a hollowness I didn’t anticipate.

It will fall into place in time.

That Time We Went to Pompeii

Every now and then we take a trip that we walk away from knowing, deep down, that will always and forever be remembered as “that time we went” there. These are times that our experience was such a sh!tshow that we’ll laugh at our trip for the rest of our lives. (See also: That Time We Went to Versailles)


Our recent trip to Naples is one of those.

We drove there as a family for my husband to attend the Air Force ball. My kids have loved the song “Pompeii” by Bastille for years now, and they think volcanoes are pretty cool. I thought it would be fun to take them there. We booked a hotel close to the ball and a half hour from Pompeii and decided we’d figure out the rest.

Fam at Pompeii

Well. Our hotel was weird. It seemed we were the only people there. Our suite seemed to have been laid out for maybe a kitchenette, but there wasn’t one. There were no paintings on the walls. The couch was just…there, nowhere, really. The restaurant hotel wasn’t at the restaurant, but at the American Hotel across the street. The restaurant did not serve hamburgers and fries, much to the dismay of my children, though my good eater was delighted to have lentil soup and my pasta was amazing. It also turned out that despite being just a five minute drive from the ball, our hotel was in a separate “zone” from the ball and so the cab fare was “required” to double. So they say. And the parking lot smelled like sulfur in the evening, but that’s the fault of a nearby volcano.

Pompeii Forum

Anyway. Pompeii was my main attraction.

Pompeii Street

We all ate carbs and chocolate for breakfast at the hotel. We waited in line for tickets for a very long time. Bertie tried to run out the door of the bookshop with a magnet decorated with an erotic painting (there are many around Pompeii, in the public bath houses, the brothel and private homes). Walden whined about ice cream, and toys, and toys and ice cream, while dragging his feet through the dust, except when he grabbed handfuls of dust to throw.


So we ate an early lunch, thank goodness, because I prefer personal space. Then we gave the kids ice cream because we just couldn’t take it anymore.

Pompeii Street-2

Those rare minutes when everyone was happy and not too hot were great. We wandered the ancient city, peeking into temples and houses, eavesdropping on English-speaking tour guides, while the kids clambered on the curbs and stepping stones. Occasionally the little one would run through a roped-off area, but the docents just laughed at his cuteness. Pompeii really is a marvel, and what a special opportunity to see what civilization looked like (with a little imagination) 2000 years ago.

Little Fountain Pompeii

Then there was the Epic Meltdown Over There Being No New Toys Today of 2015 (which rivaled the Epic Meltdown Over Having to Leave Le Cite des Enfants of 2014). Then we had a conversation about what kids who lived in Pompeii might have played with, seeing as how they lived there before bicycles and trains and airplanes were invented.

Pompeii Bassilica

But he still didn’t stop asking when they were going to “demolition” Pompeii because it’s old between complaints about the heat.

Pompeii Theater

So, after we took a break in the large theater, my husband proposed we just bag the rest of the trip and head home immediately. We drank some water and dragged our dust-covered selves back to the car.

We used the last of our fuel coupons about halfway home and rolled up to the house with a very empty tank. (I couldn’t help but think of this clip from Seinfeld.) The kids were happy to sleep in their beds, and we were all happy to discover a festival downtown in Varese the next day. Weekend saved.

It’s easy to talk ourselves out of taking trips in case they turn out like this. But now we can say we’ve been to Pompeii, at least. There’s a whole world to try out, it’s worth the risk of having a bummer trip to get to see it. Right?

~ End of Summer ~ Mixed Media

Mixed Media is a recurring feature on this blog of the books, music, movies and other media that I’m loving right now.

All of the excitement for pumpkin-flavored stuff has started making waves, but I’m grasping the last straws of summer over here. Yes, the light is becoming golden and the nights are cooler. But my kids aren’t in school yet, dammit.

So. With the Labor Day weekend ahead I feel I can share my summer media favorites, which aren’t particularly timely because I’m so out of touch, but still.

Listening to

Do you ever have those moments when you think, “Oh. Wait. I really need some music for this.”? I get so wrapped up in the tasks of daily living that I sometimes forget that I love listening to music and that it has the power to set the tone for my day.

I’m in love with one of Italy’s top songs of the summer (which happens to be Spanish and unavailable for download in the U.S., but I dare you to listen to this and want to dance):

Electric Love by BØRNS just makes me happy:


We’re dutiful about playing MindSnacks Italian and Duolingo over here to learn the language. Walden can count and spell some Italian words already!

WhatsApp is my new lifeline, allowing me to text with friends and family back home (if you’re set up yet, ahem MOM).


Mixed Media Books Fall 15

You’ve hard about this adult coloring craze, right? This has not been lost on me. I am OBSESSED, to the point where I consider coloring to be an official hobby. I love coloring in my Angie Grace Balance book.

Two friends recommended All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew when I asked where to begin with my garden. The method is revolutionary to me, as someone who grew up among long row gardens, and I’m now very excited to start my own.

I’ve been reading Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown for a while now. It’s taking me far too long to read, but I absolutely love it every time I pick it up. There is so much truth inside it. Everything she says about vulnerability and shame resonate so very deeply. Perhaps it’s that there is so much to process and discover while reading it that requires all this time?

And, being a new transplant in my town, I found “How to Make Friends as a Grown Up” at Real Simple to be a really insightful (and encouraging!) read.

Our Internet hiatus has really sliced into my movie watching this summer. With any luck our household goods will arrive very soon and I’ll be able to discover something for the next Mixed Media list!

What are you into right now?

I can’t responsibly finish this post without links to some information about the refugee crisis in Europe. Take a look at these charts. The number of displaced people is astounding. I hesitate to post this link because I felt so angry at the person who shared it on Facebook, forcing me to see the toddler on a beach who didn’t make the journey to freedom with his family. It can’t be unseen, and it is incredibly difficult to see as a mother. It’s much more comfortable to ignore that there are millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes for the hope of survival, that sometimes their stories end like this. We need to know this is happening.

Feel free to scroll back to the music to boost your mood after that. My apologies (but I can’t NOT say something). I do wish you a happy holiday weekend!