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!

What to Do with Figs

In the category of “Things I Never Expected” you will find the fact that we have a fig tree in our yard. I can’t tell you the variety, as I really know nothing about figs. It wasn’t until a bird massacred a dangling fig, disemboweling it and leaving a flap of red, pulpy insides hanging from the branch that I realized the fruit was actually ripe. (It looks as gory as it sounds.)

So Many Figs

With a little internet research I discovered that my figs are ready when they are mostly purple, begin to droop and appear to be ready to burst. Peak ripeness is achieved when a glistening droplet emerges from the bottom of the fruit. THEN you pick, because figs don’t ripen off the tree. No one likes an unripe fig.

It turns out many figs ripen at once. And then a couple of days later, and then a couple after that. We’re in the figs, people. Figs for days. Maybe even weeks?

My first order of business: fig jam. Fig jam with gorgonzola, with brie, on top of toast spread with ricotta. In a marinade for beef.


But we’re still waiting for our household goods to arrive and I don’t have a pot large enough to properly can the preserves, so I’m on a quest for All the Ways to Consume Figs. Here are some recipes I’ve found that I’m excited to try:

You can follow my Figs Figs Figs Pinterest board for more ideas. Because I’ll need many, many more. How do you like to eat your figs?

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!