Embracing a Foreign Identity

largeAt the gym tonight, I was able to recognize (perhaps for the first time) the hilarity in one of the many grin-and-bear-it situations we expats deal with on a daily basis.

An English girl named “Rain” was signing up for next week’s lessons and pronouncing her name “the Italian way” for the receptionist: “rAY-Nuh”.  Even though she’s come three times a week for the past two months, it’s still not easy for the girls at the front desk to comprehend the foreign sound of her name.  She had to repeat it three times before the girl was like, “Oh! Rainuh!”

Uh…Yeah, kinda.

I am not insinuating that the girls at the desk are slow. I am just reminding you all (all 9 of you reading this post) what a challenge it is and how instinctively averse we are to digesting information outside our cultural comfort zone.

Assimilating yourself into a foreign culture is not a task to underestimate.

When you make your big move, life feels very vacationy and romantic.  I’m not talking laying-on-the-beach-drinking-out-of-a-coconut vacationy.

You’re working your ass off trying to make a living – and the qualifications you slaved to accumulate for the first half of your life don’t “translate” into your new country.  (3 cheers for 18 hour workdays on minimum wage!)

In addition, you understand about 30% of what everyone’s saying most of the time and can’t communicate precisely what is is you want to say with the subtle undertones necessary .  Completely forget about communicating strong emotions. Half the time you break out in your mother tongue – which entirely defeats your meager attempts at expressing your soul-shattering sentiments. The other half of the time you botch your sentences with a cleaver because the emotion gets in the way of the logical translating part of your brain.  In my opinion these parts of the brain (uh, at least, of my brain) are two south poles.

Don’t even go there.

To worsen the situation, as an English major, I tend to take extravagant liberties with language.  I love creating new words because they sort of sound like another word or just feel good in your mouth.  The temptation of mixing TWO languages in this way is overwhelming.  You can imagine the gratification when you combine two seemingly-random words from two different languages into a perfect new exemplar of multi-linguarality.

But when you’re speaking a language you don’t have an expert handle on, it’s best to avoid taking such liberties.  Trust me, no one has any clue what you’re trying to say – even when you stick to sentences that use the simplistic grammatical standards of a  3-year old.

Get creative and the entire conversation is shot to hell.

No, I’m talking about the planning stage of a vacation.  You know, when you’re still browsing rental house catalogs, imagining how wonderful you would feel staying in a 10 bedroom beach front property with private pool and live in housekeeper/personal trainer/Michelin star chef.  How could you not be your best youhave a relaxing, time-of-your-life experience in that house?  You get totally caught up in the glamour of vacation and forget about your real-world limitations.  Ahhem, it would take you three years of shiny new minimum wage paychecks to pay for one week at Barbie’s dreamhouse.

That’s what being an expat is like at the beginning.

Of course, you tend not to realize you’re living in Dream World because you’re busy trying to solve the conundrums of everyday life.  Inside, your heart is shouting with joy at your new, sophisticated life abroad while the rest of you is muddling around Clueless and Illiterate.

So, anyways, back to the gym.  One of my new acquaintances – and might I just say that in two months of Fight Club I’ve made more promising acquaintances than I have in the last nine years in this country.  I love this place and I love the people that come here.  I love the friendly staff who always acknowledge you with a genuinely friendly smile.  They seem so grateful that YOU – YOU are there with them.  I love the camaraderie during the classes and afterwards in the locker room.  Tonight was an atypical class – usually we sweat a lot and are barely able to walk back to our cars (perhaps I should speak for myself, but I get the feeling I’m not the only one – ha! ANOTHER thing I love about this place!!).  Tonight we didn’t sweat much but worked on technical form and some of the girls were kind of bummed because they felt like they hadn’t burned as many calories as usual, “Damn, I totally overdid it at lunch and now I have to eat broth for dinner to make up for it!”

Another girl, the new acquaintance who later inspired me with her grin-and-bear-it experience, jumped right in and said (in Italian), “We’ve got to stay positive!”  At this point, we were all rallied around her in varying degrees of semi-cladness. (Semi-cladness is totally a word),

“Sessions like this are JUST as important as the super-calorie-burning sessions because they teach us how to workout without hurting ourselves.”

Then another girl jumped in with a story about how her boyfriend, a Super Built Gym Guy, was constantly icing his shoulder or knee when he worked out at a different place (with ice, not frosting).  Since he joined Black Bull (our gym) he hasn’t felt pain once.  She was like,

“We’ve all been here for a couple months now and have any of you gotten hurt?  (she intuitively knew the answer because we all watch out for each other).  “No, none of you have had problems like that and it’s specifically because they teach us proper technique like they did tonight.”

Then, as we’re cheering and circling around doing Rocky punches in the air in our underwear, a fourth girl jumps in with,

“Hey, look on the bright side: you can have a ton of sex tonight to make  up for the calories we didn’t burn in class!”

I haven’t felt girly camaraderie like this in…a long time.

And it

So, I guess I’ve come full circle:  through the romance of a new life in a new country, to the harsh reality of being an outsider far FAR away from home, to finally feeling welcomed into a group of peers.

Barely moved out of  Barbie dreamhouse and already neck-deep in Disney schmoozieness (also definitely a word).

Maybe this is what being an expat is really all about.

F.Y.I.  The “Italian version” of my name is equally as amusing as Rain’s (who’s British by the way).  And aren’t her parents great for giving her such an awesome name (like my parents too)?  “Rain” for a little girl born in a place where it’s always raining.  They must think of the sun every time they look at her.

download (1)There are various Italian butcherings (go ahead, look it up in the dictionary, I dare you!) to both my first and last name. When I say, “Crane,” it sounds like crin (pronounced Cr(a)eeen), which is Piemontese dialect for “pig”.  Mmm. Not a particularly nice picture, but if you look on the bright side, lots of wonderful things can be associated to pigs: bacon, pork belly, Miss Piggy, Pumbaa, the 3 little pigs (have you read this version?), Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web…Despair not!

downloadIf you say “Crane”, pronouncing it the American way, and the person you’re talking to knows a little English, they might say, “OH! Like a gru, right?”  Gru means crane, as in the machine with hoist, wire ropes or chain used for lifting materials on a construction site.  I guess this association works, as I am tall and am now learning how to lift heavy things.

But if you talk to your average Italian, you’ll have to pronounce “Crane” the Italian way, “Crawhh-neigh”, which sounds like some sort of weird petri-dish breeding experiment gone wrong.  A cross between a crab and a horse perhaps? (The first syllable sounds like “Craw”, which reminds me of “crawl” or “claw” which makes me think of a crab).

Phew.  Let’s just leave “Shira” for another day…


The New House: An Update

Second Story Staircase

Work on the new house is moving right along!  In fact, it’s practically done!  Yesterday, Flavio – our fallegname di fiducia, or faithful woodworker and furniture builder – came to get the precise measurements for the kitchen, kitchen pantry, bathroom sink base, inside doors, baseboards and hallway armoir.

Yeah, he’s basically in charge of everything that has anything to do with wood in the house.  So far he’s put in the second story staircase.  Which I can finally clean up since everyone is done painting.  (I seriously don’t understand how people can make such a mess when they work and then not clean up after themselves.)

And he’s also done the wooden flooring that’s in both bedrooms, the hallway and the guest bathroom.  It doesn’t have the final coat of finish on it yet – he’ll be coming back to do that when most of the other work is done.  We really love the flooring, which is an industrial flooring made up of lots of little pieces…a picture says a thousand words:

This week Luca tried his hand at some Venetian stucco in the guest bathroom.  It came out really cool!  He’s still polishing it up some more, so I’ll post another picture when it’s all done.  But here’s one from yesterday.  If you’re not familiar with it (I wasn’t!), Venetian stucco is a sort of polished plaster.

Venetian Stucco

Basically you apply two or three layers of really thick “paint” with a chocolate spreader (well, that’s what I call it, it’s a type of metal spatula), keeping it at 30° and you have to really spread it a lot and let it dry between coats.  Then  you polish it (we learned a trick that involves drying and buffing with a hair dryer that works great).  When it’s done, the wall isn’t a uniform color and it looks like glass!  It feels like glass too.  It’s a very cool finish.  For the moment, we’re just doing the one pillar in the guest bathroom dark red, but we already bought two other jars of grey  to put somewhere else (not exactly sure where we’re going to use it because the original idea has been shot down…if you need any grey venetian stucco, let me know).  In the picture at the left it hasn’t been polished yet.

I’m so excited for my camera di creatività (creativity room)!!  I might move in early so I have somewhere to store all my stuff.  It’s such a pain having to haul everything out every time I want to do a craft or hem a skirt.  I’m already dreaming up things I can do in the room and collecting some interior design ideas.  You can check them out on Pinterest and leave comments if you want.

I amazingly managed to convince Luca that we needed some more color in the house and here’s our new green wall on the stairway that goes up to the third floor:

Now that it’s there he loves it as much as I do – a little color never hurt anyone, though sometimes you have to be courageous to use it.

Here’s a video I took on Febuary 13th to give you a better idea of the layout of the house.

Thoughts on housekeeping…

In the four years I’ve lived in Italy, I’ve noticed a LARGE abyss between my way of keeping house and the Italian way.  I’ve given considerable thought as to why my feelings on housekeeping are SO different than Italian women’s feelings and think the difference is a result of the American Industrial Revolution.

This revolution caused young women to take responsability for their futures: while supporting themselves in mill towns, they achieved a measure of economic and social independence not possible while living under the parental roof.  It created an ambitious drive in American women that I find lacking in my experience with Italian women in Italy.  And, if you consider the fact that most Italian men and women live with their parents until at least age 30 and rarely move out of their hometown, this lack of ambition makes sense.  Why should “young” Italians try to make more money or give more effort when their lives are perfectly fine living at home having their parents take care of them?

Perhaps the ambition and drive the young women don’t spend on making a career for themselves is redirected into housekeeping.  Luca’s mom and female friends are always trying to give me tips on being a better housekeeper – keeping delicate clothing in plastic bags, ironing everything from underwear to towels, using only delicate wash cycles and air drying everything, dusting once a day, separating winter socks from summer socks…the list goes on and on.

I’ve received several email forwards that illustrate my response to these “helpful” housekeeping hints:

Thanks, but:   

Remember…a layer of dust protects the wood beneath it.


maxine maxine


I used to spend at least 4 hours every weekend making sure things were just perfect – “in case someone came over.”  Finally I realized one day that no one came over; they were all out living life and having fun!  
NOW, when people visit, I don’t have to explain the ‘condition’ of my home.  They are more interested in hearing about the things I’ve been doing while I was away living life and having fun….


No Dog, but Plants & … Ladybugs

ladybugs.jpgEvery since meeting my parents’ new dog, Chewy, I’ve been dying to get a dog.  They’re such good company!  And an excuse to get exercise everyday too.  But everyone keeps saying how much work they are, how you can’t go anywhere or do anything because you’ve got this dog tying you down….blah blah blah. 

Well, they’ve sort of convinced me.  So I bought plants instead.  Five of them: tulips, two primroses, a baby rose bush, and a jade tree.  (Plus, I’ve got the gigantic zinnia I planted a couple weeks ago that’s growing nicely in it’s oriental vase–pron. vaaahhhhzz).

And now, though I don’t know who came first, we’ve got hundreds of ladybugs in our kitchen.  (Ladybugs are called coccinelle in Italian, pron. ko-chee-nelleh). 

Luca keeps making jokes about what great pets they are–you don’t have to take them for walks or clean up their poop.  You don’t have to feed them or listen to them bark or whine…etc, etc.  This may all be true, but they’re also not as fun as dogs.  The only interaction I actually have with the ladybugs is when I find them tipped upside-down and have to right them again.  Ladybugs spend a surprising amount of time upside-down.  And since their life span is 4-7 weeks, I do a overturned ladybug check everyday when I get home… 

Weekend in Review

This weekend was pretty uneventful.  I did a thorough cleaning of the household on Saturday morning and basically hung out the rest of the day, making Valentine’s Day decorations.  Last night Luca went out with the buds so I watched Anne of Avonlea and made cookie dough (again for the Vday party–making the same marmalade-filled linzer hearts I made for Aunt Joan’s wedding).  Anne makes me cry every time!  You’d think I would be immune to this film after having watched it as many times as I have, but no.  Man, it’s so good. 

I saw another, almost-Anne-quality film while I was at home over Christmas.  It was Masterpiece Theater’s Jane Eyre.  I had never heard of Toby Stephens before (perhaps because he’s British).  What a hottie.  In fact, considering the fact that Mr. Rochester is supposed to be an older, somewhat unattractive character, I’m surprised they chose Stephens for this part (though who could resist him?).  I need to get a copy of this movie, even if it doesn’t accurately follow the original piece of literature, it’s highly entertaining.

Speaking of entertaining, we went to Aosta two weekends ago to get away.  Visited our friends who work at Gros Cidac, the best (Italian) grocery store ever and went to our favorite restaurant, Aux Plaisirs Demodes, in Saint Marcel.  The first night we were there, we went into Aosta city center to get a bite for dinner.  Luca’s hands were so chapped they were starting to bleed.  I fortunately remembered that Rosanna (Luca’s Mom) had given me two mono-portion samples of hand cream a while back that I had in my purse.  So while we were waiting for dessert, I took one out and gave it to him.  He was in such a rush to start healing his poor hands that he didn’t read the label and just started spurting it all over. 

Turns out it was liquid body soap.  With an extremely powerful rose scent.

Oh my god, I was dying.  We were both crying we were laughing so hard.  The whole restaurant (which consisted of one small room with tables too close together) smelled like roses.

Just goes to show you, haste makes waste.

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