Encountering Real Life Italian Angels

An Italian Angel, Italywise

It all started with a dead battery.

And, it all came to a successful conclusion, thanks to the divine intervention of an Italian angel at a local auto mechanic’s shop. Here’s a brief synopsis:

My car wouldn’t start. How frustrating. We jump-started the car, and I drove it around for forty-five minutes, hoping to recharge it. It seemed to work, but two days later, it was dead again. My battery was less than a year old, and still under warranty, but the Fiat dealer who installed it was in Umbria, and we live in Veneto now.

We jumped my car, again, and drove to a local battery shop. They tested my battery, and deemed it fine but suggested I drive the car to the an auto mechanic’s shop up the road, to have them charge it overnight, and do a more thorough check.

The owner of the auto mechanic’s shop was waiting for me (the previous guy had called ahead to alert the owner of the problem). Go ahead, leave the car, and check back in the morning. I walked home (the shop was less than ten minutes away by foot).

The next morning I returned. A bum battery, despite an all-night charge. Dagnabit! Was I going to have to shell out money for a new battery? The shop owner had me call the Fiat dealership in Umbria, and then I passed the phone to him. He then orchestrated

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May the Stars of Possibility Light Your Way

Stars in Treviso, Italywise

My extraordinary artistic mother lit the fuse of my imagination.

My brilliant engineering father taught me how to construct a plan and a path towards making something happen.

I am indeed fortunate that such beautifully intertwined influences (and gene pools) came together to create this being called Jed Smith (and my two enormously talented sisters). Though Liz and Ed already have taken flight from this earthly realm, they remain the two brightest stars illuminating my path and the journey towards an endless world of possibility.

Last evening, a stroll through the magically lit streets and alleyways of Treviso prompted this realization. I was overcome with gratitude, and my subsequent meanderings through the city left me contemplating the following questions:

Just who and what are the numerous stars that illuminate your path?

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Coming to live in Italy? Get used to the marca da bollo

marca da bollo, Italywise

Get used to buying a marca da bolla when you navigate the Italian bureaucracy

This post isn’t glamorous or riveting – that is, unless you find the nuts and bolts of the bureaucratic process fascinating. But, the marca da bollo, or Italian revenue stamp, is a regular necessity in Italian life – especially if you’re a new resident making applications for various things.

The marca da bolla has been in use since 1863

I’ve been asking myself what practical matters have I left unaddressed on my blog. Well, this past week I was reminded of that pesky little thing called the marca da bollo. I had gone to the U.S. consulate to get a particular declaration needed for one a process I’m going through here in Treviso. Even though the document carried the official stamp of the consulate and the officer assured me the city of Treviso had the signature on file, the comune office informed me I needed to go to yet another office in order for them to certify that the consulate certificate was valid. As we entered the office it occurred to me that I might need a marca da bollo to get this certification. Bingo. Eighteen euro, I was told, and we hopped in the car to find the closed tabaccheria (about a five-minute drive). If you don’t what a tabaccheria is, in addition to a marca da bollo, you can buy regular stamps, lottery tickets, bus tickets, cigarettes, stationary, etc.

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Embrace the mystery of life, and prepare for things to change…

Mystery of life, Italywise

Contrary to a life-long desire to figure “things” out, and arrive at a metaphorical destination in which I finally can relax, I’m learning that constant seeking…a constant insistence on being able to explain things, instead keeps me stuck and limited. These days I keep finding myself being invited to embrace the mystery of life, and to trust that, when I do, life will carry me along to unforeseen, and unimagined places of creativity and possibility.

And, I’m reminded that I don’t know squat. Most of the time, that’s actually is a huge relief, and I feel something inside of me let go, and relax. My, what a price we pay for being on high alert while simultaneously trying to lasso life and manage it to our liking.

Might life have better plans for us than even our most lofty ideas? I believe so.

This is the scariest part for me – actually to keep moving forward while trusting in the mystery of life. Moving to Italy and throwing myself headlong into all my creative passions (writing, painting, photography) feels like a huge roll of the dice. My inner judge tells me I’m being indulgent and irresponsible. It then tells me “Well, if you insist on this path, step aside and let me manage the process.” Yikes. Talk about a creativity killer.

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My Buddy, the Bidet

The Bidet, Italywise

Here in Italy the bidet is indispensable when it comes to person hygiene.

Well, I promised myself I would be faithful to discussing all facets of my new life here in Italy. And, to that promise, today I’m writing lovingly about my buddy, the bidet. Pardon me if I insert a bit of bathroom humor, but I’ll try to keep it clean as possible (the puns already are starting!).

The bidet is found most widely in southern Europe, with Italy topping the list.

Wikipedia will ground you in the basics of the bidet, if for some reason, you need an education. I saw my first bidet many moons ago when I was studying art here in Italy. My university group had landed in Paris, and we were staying there for a couple of nights before taking the train to Florence. In our little hotel I remember my moment of extreme bewilderment when I saw this hybrid of a sink and a toilet. I stood there, wondering if there was a hidden camera recording my confusion, and my eventual choice as to which device to use. Mom and dad hadn’t prepared me for this. I chose wisely, opting to go with the known entity. I asked questions later, but basically got an explanation that it was for women to “freshen up” after using the toilet.

Now I understand so much more. And, I don’t know what I would do without one in our home.

Italians take their personal hygiene and their bathroom habits seriously. I’ve heard many of my Italian friends remark, with disbelief, that a bidet isn’t a common bathroom fixture in the United States, even going so far as to say “Che schifo!”, or “How disgusting!”. This is followed up with an inquiry as to how Americans make sure they’re “clean” after going to the toilet, and remarking that toilet paper surely can’t do a complete job.

I have to agree.

I now understand that the bidet is designed for both genders. The hurdle for me was getting past the sitting on cold porcelain. Yikes, that’s an abrupt feeling of cold. Now I know what women feel like when the men in their households leave the toilet seat up, and they experience surprise contact with porcelain.

But, now I’m well versed in how to use the bidet. A person can sit facing the faucet or opposite, depending on the task at hand, or personal preference. Soaps for “intimate” areas are always within reach.

What happens when space doesn’t allow for a bidet?

An important question, especially since some bathrooms simply aren’t large enough to accommodate a bidet. If you’ve ever been to Italy, and seen a faucet with a hose next to the toilet, well that’s what it’s for – not to hose down the floor or clean the bath, though it certainly can come in handy in that regard. The problem, for me, with this “solve”, is the inability to control and contain the water during the hose-down of private parts. And, the force of the water often is a bit much for my taste. But, now that my “house training” has adapted me to the benefits of the bidet, I’ll certainly take the hose over not having anything but toilet paper.

Now, when I’m out and about, and a bidet or a special hygiene hose doesn’t exist (as is the case in many restaurants and bar/cafès) I’m not a happy camper. And, when I visit the States, I have to revert to old habits, and settle for not having the extra dose of “clean up”. Certainly not the end of the world, but now that I’ve seen the light, I’m a convert.

Yes, I’m spoiled, but I’m happy not to be soiled (sorry, couldn’t resist it).

I hope you enjoyed this brief post extolling the wonders of the bidet!

 

Talking Trash, Italian-Style

Talking Trash Italian-Style, Italywise

The systems for managing trash in Italy can vary significantly from region to region and town to town.

Sorry to disappoint if the title of this email implied juicy gossip, or pointers on cussing in Italy. Nope, this is about the very important topic of managing your trash in Italy. While this part of everyday life in Italy might not seem like a major issue, nonetheless, if you plan on staying in Italy for any extended time (i.e. setting up a household), you don’t want to be caught unawares. It’s a significant yearly expense, so I recommend you factor that into your budget.

That pesky thing called the Rifuti tax…

I loathe getting my rifuti (trash) tax bill from the local comune in Umbria. I pay several hundred dollars (payable in two installments). What irks me is that I have no trash pickup at the house. There is a container on the street leading down the mountain. When cleaning up after having guests over for dinner it’s not a fun walk, which is partially in the dark. Cinghiale (wild boar) sightings are common, and I’d hate to have an encounter with these dangerous animals simply while taking out the trash. So, I have to haul my trash a good distance from the house. And, this container is supposed to be only for non-recyclables. Down in the village, containers for sorting glass, plastics and metals, paper, non-recyclables, used batteries and old medications are available. It’s a bit of a hassle, but I’ve gotten used to making the journey. Still, I pay a hefty annual tax. If you slough off paying this tax, be prepared for a notice from the Agenzia Entrate. When a letter arrives from this agency it’s usually not good news, and many Italians clutch their chests when they first see such a letter. This is a governmental agency that gets involved for taxes not paid, and you could have personal belongs seized and accounts frozen. So, even if you feel the tax is unfairly high given your circumstances, pay it.

Trash service varies significantly depending on where you are in Italy.

In some communities trash sorting and collection is a free-for-all, with very little structure and compliance. I’ve heard of one area in which residents are obliged to sort their trash according to what can be recycled and what can’t be recycled. Containers are provided to ensure compliance. However, word is that once the trash is picked up, it ends up being all dumped together. For me this sounds like a scenario where the agency responsible for rifuti is training residents to “get with the program” while the agency itself hasn’t yet caught up with the backend process. Yeah, a bit of a head scratcher. Then there are places, like Rome, where they have systems in place, but the city just can’t seem to catch up with debris that often litters the beautiful historical sites. Okay…let’s visit the other end of the spectrum. Even though we still maintain our home in Umbria, we’re now living mostly in Treviso, which is a lovely, historical town just 20 minutes north of Venice. Man, this town has its trash act together. So much, in fact, Simone and I live in fear of not following trash protocol properly and being “busted” and fined by the trash police (okay, I don’t think there is such a thing, but our trash IS monitored and checked for compliance). Fines can be stiff. When we first arrived in Treviso we dutifully picked up our four containers, each barcoded for tracking. One container for “umido” (biodegrable), one for “carta” (paper), one labeled “vetro” (which means glass, but is also for plastics, and metal), and one for “secco” which is most stuff that doesn’t fit into the other categories. We were given a calendar showing what is picked up and on which dates. – and we are obliged to use the trash bags (provided for free) from the Comune. We pay an annual fee and then each time we put out the “secco” container for pickup, we’re billed 16 euros. The upshot of this is that Treviso is a poster child for Italian cleanliness. You can tell residents take pride in their city and it’s nice to be in a historical Italian city that isn’t marred by unsightly trash. Other city services are run with similar precision which makes living here quite attractive. So, that’s the extent of my trash talk in this post, other than recommending that you learn the do’s and don’ts of your future Italian community. Be prepared, manage your expectations, and all will be well!

At Rest – New Photo by Jed

At Rest, Italywise

At Rest is a recent photo by Jed Smith

I am drawn to, in my art and photography, scenes of simplicity and calm. For me these are meditations and reminders of the importance of stepping out of the torrent of “doing” and allowing my soul, and mind, to breathe.

I’ve always had a fascination with physics, especially the paradoxes of quantum physics. For an artist? Yeah, go figure. I guess my dad’s nuclear engineer genes haven’t been crowded out by my mom’s art genes.

What continually does a number on my head is that the world/universe actually is 99.99% empty space, yet we’re convinced by the swirling activity of infinitesimal particles of energy that what we see is solid and real. I know that I all too often forget about this ocean of empty space which holds everything, and where anything can happen. Like me, unless you’re an Einstein or David Bohm, your brain will shut down if it tries to assimilate this into anything but an intellectual concept.

In light of a brain that can’t conceive of the inconceivable, I “feel” my way towards truth with my art. The above scene brings me calm. In contemplating such a setting, perhaps my mind, like the waters, becomes still, and the realization of the depth and richness of the unseen space that connects everything returns to my awareness. The neurotic need to do, to figure it all out, abates. And, the insanity of the world’s current events temporarily loosen their grip on my attention. For me, this in incredible gift.

In closing, I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite actors…

Learning how to be still, to really be still and let life happen – that stillness becomes a radiance. – Morgan Freeman

To see other photos be sure to visit my online gallery.

Poste Italiane, Italywise

Waiting in line, and practicing patience!

“Scusate, chi è l’ultimo?” which means “Who is the last one?” is a phrase you’d best remember when you prepare to stand in line at the post office, the doctor’s waiting room, the questura (immigration police), almost any utility company, and a host of other government or public service offices.

I don’t mean to imply that Italy is the poster child for long queues, or that life in the States is devoid of having to stand in line. But, in my experience waiting in line is a far more common experience in Italy. My dear friend Elizabeth gently coached me on practicing the three P’s – patience, persistence, and politeness. She also urged me to always have a good book (or, in my case, my Ipad), and be prepared to settle in for a bit of unpredictability. Knowing this early on has helped me to breathe, and release my American-conditioned need to “move things along”. In other words, I’ve had to check my “Chop, chop, get ‘er done attitude.”

The feature photo for this post is the classic Poste Italiane sign (sadly soon to be defunct and currently being replaced by a new snazzy design). I’ve done my share of complaining about waiting in line, and very long queues with the good ole’ USPS. The experience varies by location here in Italy, but in most larger Italian post offices, the experiences make me feel a bit guilty for complaining back in the states.

I’m talking about the Poste Italiane as an example of how waiting in line functions in other venues. Learn the ropes and the rules of behavior, and all will be good.

At our local Poste Italiane in Rome they have a machine you approach when you enter, and based on the type of transaction you hope to make, you choose the appropriate button, and the machine dutifully spits out an alpha-numeric slip. Then you stand or sit, and wait for your number to pop up above a specific window. I’ve seen people enter and push all the different buttons and hold onto three different slips, banking on being able to plead ignorance if they’re summoned and they are attempting a transaction at odds with the function of this particular window. No surprise, most of the people who do this are stranieri (foreigners).

The experience varies at our local Poste Italiane in Umbria. No numbering system exists to help provide sanity to the queueing up process. There is a manual machine where you can go to pull off a paper number, but it always is empty. So, the “organic” system of queueing up goes into play, and I return to how this post began,”Scusate, chi è l’ultimo?”

Rarely do you see a discernible line in such a situation. Unless you have followed someone into the venue and you know for certain they are the last person, be sure to ask (in Italian) “Who is the last person?” Then, you will know when it is your turn. Also, be prepared to answer the question for the next person who enters.

Follow the above practice religiously, or you risk inadvertently stepping ahead of someone else, and the “mob” can get pretty irrate.

At my doctor’s office the organic queueing is always in play. At my farmacia, the numbering system helps keeps things under control.

The most challenging office for me is the questura, when I am going for my annual permesso di soggiorno renewal interview. Even though I have an appointment, I’m lumped together in a waiting room with people waiting for a variety of reasons, some with appointments and some without. And, every time an official opens the door to call in a person, there’s a bit of a mob scene, with people trying to get in ahead of others. Yes, foreigners. Italians, as a general rule, would enact the system described above, and then patiently wait their turn.

In closing, I must stress that the system of waiting in line will vary, often to your frustration. I’m a person who desires much greater predictability in “taking care of business”. So, I’ve had to learn and adopt a very different attitude. If you’re planning a long stay in Italy, or if you’re planning on making a more permanent move, I urge you to prepare yourself for this “fact of life”, and manage your expectations accordingly. If you’re like me, you can employ techniques to make waiting fun. If you’re open to it, rather than getting worked up when things don’t move along briskly, play the people-watching game, and use it as an opportunity to listen and train your ear to what is being said in Italian!

 

 

 

Buone feste from Italy!

Buone feste, Italywise

The holidays are elegantly rendered in the ancient streets of Italy.

My favorite holiday decorations in Italy are the chandeliers suspended in the middle of the city streets of old historic towns. I first saw a sea of chandeliers in one street in Florence and the sight stopped me in my tracks. I was speechless. I had no idea I could be transported back to complete childlike wonderment.

Using a chandelier as a giant ornament is only one of many elegant adornments you’ll see in Italy, should you be lucky enough to celebrate the holidays in Italy. I must confess, I was feeling a little burned out on the holidays when I left the U.S.  Maybe I just needed a new locale to rekindle the magic that I’d lost over the years. Maybe I had become a tiny bit of a grinch.

Italy has come to my rescue, and I’m falling in love with the holidays again. I know this is trite, but I feel like I’m in the middle of a fairytale expression of the holidays. Perhaps old world charm was the missing ingredient.

As my education about “all things Italian” continues, I know I still have much to learn about the traditions of celebrating the holidays here in Italy. I promise to plan a post for next December to call out the most special aspects of an Italian Christmas and New Year.

I dearly miss my family in friends back in the States, especially at this time of the year. But, I am surrounded by the warmth of my new Italian family, and I love having days filled with hearty and frequent wishes of “Buone feste” and “Auguri!”

Thank you all for following my adventures, and for your enthusiasm and your support during this first year of Italywise. May you all have the richest and warmest of holidays, and may we all be blessed with magic!

Auguri, Italywise

Auguri! Best wishes from Italy.

Don’t Wish Me Luck – Talk about Wolves, Whales and Poop!

Speaking Italian, Italywise

Photo by NatureGuy, Adobe Stock Images

You’re probably asking (if you’re not offended) “What do wolves, whales, and poop have in common?” They all share a common function of wishing someone well here in Italy, while avoiding saying “good luck”.

I am fascinated by idiomatic expressions, and they are plentiful here in Italy. As you begin learning them, you might be overwhelmed. I’d recommend concentrating on matters that come up more frequently, so you can fit in. So, don’t be surprised when an Italian instructs you, “Don’t wish me luck!” Other colorful ways are at your disposal for wishing someone well. Let’s start with probably the most common…

“In bocca al lupo” means “In the mouth of the wolf.”

This phrase, is similar to the English “Break a leg,” and has origins in opera and theater. Over time, its use has expanded to encompass wishing someone well in other endeavors, such as taking an exam. I heard this several times before I took my Italian driver’s license exam. How do you respond when someone says this to you? “Crepi il lupo” which means “May the wolf die” is the proper response. Often it is shortened to “Crepi!” A prevailing theory insinuates that you hope the wolf dies, choking while he has you in his mouth.

An alternative theory of the origin of “In bocca al lupo” is that it isn’t phrase that is meant to have menacing overtones, but instead refers to how a mother wolf might protectively hold a cub in her mouth. I prefer that interpretation, and I’d rather not wish that a wolf dies. But, I don’t need to split hairs. I just want to go with tradition, and follow the formula.

If you want to equip yourself with one phrase for wishing someone well here in Italy, this would be the one, in my opinion. Other options exist, but they’re pretty colorful, and you might not feel comfortable using them. They also include references to “poop” (my attempt to be a bit more polite).

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