The Ebb and Flow of the Feral Cats of Italy

During a Thanksgiving trip to Italy several year ago, this was the scene that greeted my friend Nicole and me upon rising the first morning. That's Oscar's mom left to the center (tawny with the green eyes) before she embarked upon a life of pregnancy after pregnancy.

During a Thanksgiving trip to Italy several year ago, this was the scene that greeted my friend Nicole and me upon rising the first morning. That’s Oscar’s mom left to the center (brownish grey fur with the green eyes) before she embarked upon a life of pregnancy after pregnancy.

On a sunny Saturday February afternoon in the hills of Umbria, my next door neighbor Amalia and I have followed Micia, the mother of all mother cats, from inside Amalia’s house, where she has been resting (even though she is a feral cat) contentedly by a nice fire. Micia is now in the middle of the gravel drive, yowling in “those” tones. The sounds are desperate, insistent, and deeply disturbing. Yes, this is her provocative mating call.

Two tom cats we’ve not seen before in our little hamlet have heard the call and are circling Micia in the driveway. Both are tabbies. One has grey tones with a white chest, the other is a ginger boy. Micia continues her call, and the grey fella moves in, bites the back of her neck, and the “act” is soon completed. Yuck. Cat sex is never pretty. I’m disgusted with myself for even watching. Amalia and I look at each, shake our heads and start calculating when to be on the lookout for this new litter. Let’s see, 65 days from now takes us into the middle of April. At least the bitter cold will be past, and the kittens will have a fighting chance.

And so the cycle keeps going. Even though I remember when Micia was just a kitten about five years ago, I’m sure she already has had at least eight or nine litters of kittens. Last year she had back-to-back pregnancies, with barely three months in between (the second litter of four died because she couldn’t produce milk). After this upcoming litter we know we need to talk to a local vet who volunteers to neuter feral cats – especially in a community of cats that can and does occasionally get out of hand. When our feline population has boomed a couple of times, weather, other wild animals, and an occasional car speeding along our tiny road have knocked back the population. Even so, we always become attached to these wonderfully entertaining personalities. We all feed then (hence the “camp” outside my front door in the attached photo). They keep the rodents and snakes at bay and we all get along famously, in spite of their using the gravel path and sitting area in front of our house as one giant litter box. It’s never fun to have guests over, sitting in the garden admiring the view, and unearthing a cat turd while inadvertently repositioning one’s foot. Again, yuck.

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La frana del muro – the collapse of the wall.

Three days of non-stop rain caused a breach in a very old wall next to our house.

Three days of non-stop rain caused a breach in a very old wall next to our house.

“Sempre qualcosa” is a phrase I have come to use with greater and greater frequency. It means “always something”. And, because I have an old Umbrian home there is indeed “always something”…

Early last week, Simone and I were having a nice lunch at a favorite place here in Rome (in Trastevere), when I received a text message to contact Piero, a neighbor in Umbria. Simone called him, since Piero only speaks Italian, and because I’m not quite fluent (yet). I watched Simone’s eyes widen as he spoke rapidly with Piero, and I heard the word “muro”, which means “wall”. I knew this couldn’t be something good. After the call ended, Simone looked at me and asked “Do you want to know?”. I’m a big believer in steering right into addressing a difficulty. I was informed that the old (at least 200 years) stacked stone wall adjacent to the house and on the other side of the drive had partially collapsed, due to incessant rains just a few days before. I felt the familiar surge of adrenaline (and probably the stress hormone cortisol) I experience when faced a situation that ignites my mind to rush towards dark imaginings. That’s the flip side of being very creative. I think Simone saw the color vanish from my face, and he quickly added that Piero said it wasn’t terrible, and that there was no need to rush back to Umbria. Still, I knew I had to see for myself, either to allay my fears or accept the reality and deal with it.

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Let the Brain Games Begin….Intensive Italian Course

What a week! Today we constructed sentences using "che" and "cui" (in its various forms) - pronouns. This was after three days of forming conditional verbs.

What a week! Today we constructed sentences using “che” and “cui” (in its various forms) – pronouns. This was after three days of forming conditional verbs.

At the moment, I’m sitting at a very nice restaurant, with an outdoor seating area, just a five-minute’s walk from where I just completed my fourth day of an intensive Italian course – language that is, with lots of additional cultural add-on’s to round out the picture. It is an incredibly warm and sunny day for February (here in Rome), and I am having a nice glass of Nero d’ Avola (from Sicily) to congratulate myself on “staying the course”.

During this first week of the course (out of four weeks, 20 hours of class a week) I have experienced two prevailing symptoms. Firstly, I feel like a sponge that has been overly saturated, and I’m desperately trying to keep it all in. Secondly, my brain hurts. It says “I don’t wanna…” This part of my brain feels like a vintage car that has been stored in the garage under a tarp for too many years, without being exercised with a regular spin on the open highway. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a lazy brain. I DID pass the Italian driver’s test last year, and I had similar feelings during the 9-month journey to securing that sweet little piece of plastic that resides now in my wallet. How is this different? I am swimming now in Italian, and the English speaking center of my brain is putting up a fight. I think that is to be expected, and perhaps it just needs to tire itself out.

But, dammit, I’m going to go after this with everything I have.

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My Latest Italian Food Find – Agriturismo di Ivan

My new front runner of culinary delights is "Gnocchi di polenta", a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

My new front runner of Italian culinary delights is “Gnocchi di polenta”, a discovery we made while visiting friends in Udine.

Thursday, February 5.

Today we visited friends in Udine, a two-hour train ride northeast of Venice. We left behind powerful, gusty winds, rain mixed with snow, and rising waters. I was happy to be inside the warm train, speeding out-of-town until the waters receded. Little did I know that our journey north would lead to the best dish I’ve had yet here in Italy.

Our friends took us to Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, deep in the countryside. This restaurant was heavily populated with locals and workmen. I felt as though I was slipping into a place largely unfrequented by tourists. In fact I felt as though I stood out quite blatantly.

Everything was rustic, and cozy. A mature fire was close by, and low, warm lighting made this a place where I wanted to linger well after the meal.

The menu was simple and incredibly inexpensive. I spied several items of interest. Our friends pointed out a specialty of the house, a gnocchi of polenta with smoked ricotta and speck (a type of ham) and insisted we try it. I shelved my usual low carb restrictions and jumped onboard. This turned out to be one of the wisest culinary decisions I’ve ever made.

I guess I was expecting typical gnocchi shapes, just made with corn flour. Instead, these gnocchi looked like little polenta “cubes” doused with shavings of the smoked ricotta and chunks of speck. I took my first bites and became speechless. I was so engrossed in this new culinary experience that my chatty left brain shut down. I just ate…and ate. I’ll be thinking about this dish for a long time, and a trip back to this area, just to partake of this polenta gnocchi, will be well worth it.

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

Agriturismo di Ivan, about 20 minutes outside of Udine, in Friuli Venezia Giulia

This in no way should indicate that Agriturismo di Ivan is a one-trick pony. The cheeses and prepared meats will knock your socks off. The table wines are tasty, and the other pasta dishes, secondi and contorni (particularly the spinach in butter) are delicious.

We’re back on the train to Venice and to yet another fine dining experience at a favorite restaurant there – Osteria Anice Stellato.

Guardia Medica – Urgent Care, Italian Style

Guardia Medica - a form of urgent care available throughout Italy. Here is an office that is dedicated to tourists.

Guardia Medica – a form of urgent care available throughout Italy. Here is an office that is dedicated to tourists.

My sister has been visiting us here in Rome. After a couple of days of acclimating to the time change, her voice starting getting hoarse, and a dry cough began. Because this was at the beginning of her trip, I wanted to make sure she was seen by a doctor so that her condition wouldn’t worsen, and so that she wouldn’t be bed-ridden instead of devouring all the sites at her disposal. Being far away from home and feeling like crap isn’t a great combination.

Enter guardia medica, which is a form of urgent care. In Italy, it isn’t the emergency room, and it usually is reserved for times when a person’s regular doctor isn’t available through normal business hours. Here in Rome, you can find guardia medica offices dedicated mainly to tourists. This is a great convenience. I visited a guardia medica office once in Umbria, and I was seen within 15 minutes. At the time I wasn’t under the Italian Healthcare system, so I had to pay a (very) minor fee.

For my sister’s situation, we took her to a guardia medica at a local hospital. She was seen immediately by the doctor on duty (no, this isn’t a fairy tale), and my partner translated for her so there would be no confusion of symptoms, and subsequent treatment. Within fifteen minutes, a diagnosis had been made, antibiotics, cough syrups, and throat gargle had been prescribed. When asked about payment, the doctor said there would be no charge, and further added that in Italy (unlike in America) they feel a keen responsibility for treating sick people, without onerous financial consequences. This is an interesting and informative perspective from a country whose healthcare system is highly rated in the world.

Thank you guardia medica for “saving the day” and for providing yet another great example of Italians going out of their way to help someone through a crisis.

My sister is on the mend now, and getting the most out of her visit. Grazie a Dio!

The green neon cross of a farmacia.

The green neon cross of a farmacia.

 

 

 

Mattarella Presidente Repubblica

Italy has a new president - Mattarella! Elections held in the parliment January 31.

Italy has a new president – Mattarella! Elections held in the parliament January 31.

Yesterday, Saturday, January 21, 2015, we watched “live” on TV the casting and counting of the votes in the parliament for the new president of the Republic of Italy. I must confess total ignorance regarding the subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of Italian politics, and only with the improvement of my speaking and comprehension of the language (I’m starting a VERY intensive Italian language course in just over a week, gulp!) will I be able to share perspectives which are more informed.

What I have gleaned from reactions is that overall people are happy with Mattarella as Italy’s new president. However, some people believe Berlusconi, who is known for his penchant for orchestrating “things” from the sidelines, isn’t so happy. Speculation exists (there is an amply supply here) he instructed members of his party to submit blank ballots (read as “scheda bianca” during the tallying) so as to prevent a 505 vote majority needed to cinch the election for Mattarella. This would have forced another vote at a later time, allowing Berlusconi and his party to craft a plan to get someone in place who would be friendlier to their causes. Instead, Mattarella blew past this simple majority to garner 665 of 1009 votes. Pretty decisive, I’d say.

Mattarella is Sicilian, a widower, and a father of three. Renzi lobbied hard for his election. I have quite an education ahead of me to understand what power the president of Italy actually wields. Many people consider him more of a figurehead. Time for me to get deeper into the swirling and confusing politics and alliances within Italy. I can’t promise I’ll be able to add clarity in future posts. I can hope, however.

In the meantime, this online article from the New York Times will give you a succinct overview of this recent development.

At Last! My Tessera Sanitaria – Italian Health Care

At last! My Tessera Sanitaria card that shows enrollment in Italy's National Health Plan.

At last! My Tessera Sanitaria card showing enrollment in Italy’s National Health Plan.

After almost two years of living in Italy as an expat I now have my tessera sanitaria and I have health care coverage in Italy! Woohoo!

By some surveys Italian health care is rated #2 in the world.

Until just a few day ago I was covered with an affordable Cigna major medical plan – good anywhere in the world, except the United States (no surprise). Medical care here is pretty cheap, especially by American standards, so if I had run into a health crisis I simply would have paid my deductible and then filed a claim. Fortunately I’m in good health, so I never had to enact such a scenario.

With so many other things on my plate in my first year here, I decided to forgo making the health insurance change until 2015. Getting the tessera sanitaria isn’t necessarily a difficult thing. In fact in can go quite smoothly. But, a few factors aren’t always consistent, so educate yourself on the process, and be aware of the parts that might veer off your anticipated course.

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“Talk of the Town” in the Hills of Umbria

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

I guess small towns are pretty much the same wherever you go in the world…

You see, my neighbors in Umbria talk about my underwear. Yes, my underwear.

Living in a small rural village in Umbria, everyone pays attention to everything. This is a good thing, because the “neighborhood watch” is fierce. Our home in Umbria is in a hillside cluster of 10 or more homes. Things may appear quiet, but ears are always alert to the sounds of strange footsteps or car engines, and eyes furtively peek out from darkened windows. In these small Italian hamlets, if that’s where you end up living, you’d better get used to your life being up for village commentary and speculation. This won’t be the first and only posting about having my life on display in Umbria. I’m not at all upset about it. I find it endearing and humorous.

I was prompted to write this after having a lovely New Year’s Eve dinner with our next-door neighbors from Umbria, who also live in Rome during the winter. During the course of the meal, my neighbor delightfully recounted a conversation she had during the summer with another neighbor, who lives just around the corner. This was regarding my underwear. We share a communal clothesline, always being respectful of one other’s needs and being sure not to monopolize use of the clothesline. One day I hung out a load of laundry that included a dozen pair of my Italian briefs, courtesy of Intimissimi (a guy has to feel sexy whenever he can). I’m one of those people who like to have at least three weeks of underwear on hand, and I end up washing them in bulk.

Apparently this prolific display of underwear ownership caused quite a stir and my neighbors remarked about my investment in the underwear industry. They chuckled about this “indulgence” of mine, and I’m sure word spread throughout the village. Pretty much anything qualifies for conversation fodder – and this isn’t exclusive to the expats. It hasn’t been unusual for us to be having a coffee at our favorite bar/alimentari at the bottom of the hill, only to find out that people are aware of our activities and whereabouts just two days before.

The bottom line is that we’ve been welcomed with great hospitality and affection and the “talk” isn’t malicious in the least. I like knowing people are looking out for us. So what if my underwear strategy undergoes scrutiny in the process?

Maybe you’re choosing a secluded home up a beautiful cypress-lined drive, and this will afford you much privacy. But, be prepared, because it will also prompt commentary from the locals, and this will be turbo-charged with colorful speculation. Italians are masters of storytelling.

I can only imagine what other stories have been told as the result of the astute observations of our comings and goings. With a bit of exploration, and sufficient consumption of wine and grappa, I’m sure we’ll be able to loosen lips….

Considering Moving to Italy?

Or, are you planning an extended stay in Italy?

Hollywood has helped build a heavily weighted view of living in Italy. While I liked “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Diane Lane is one of my favorite actors) for the sheer entertainment value, I found it a bit sugar-coated (unlike the book). Yes, there were hurdles and tests for Frances, but still it all happened just a little too magically – thanks to the Hollywood “spin” to make sure audiences walked away satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, there is a LOT of magic to be experienced when you live here, but there is also a lot of red tape and bureaucracy, and laws change frequently and unexpectedly. I’ve found things that seemed to be a “no-brainer” in the U.S. to be quite difficult here. For example, the Italian postal service is incredibly unreliable and unpredictable. If you want to raise your estimation of the U.S. Postal Service significantly, just come to Italy and try to post a letter back to the States.

A blue-themed restaurant just in front of the Pantheon in Rome.

A blue-themed restaurant just in front of the Pantheon in Rome.

You might think I’m trying to scare you away. I’m not. I’m just a big believer in due diligence and full disclosure when it comes to factors that can influence a major life decision. Italy IS an amazingly beautiful and endearing country, for countless reasons. However, many people make the move here, only to feel sideswiped by the non-romantic practicalities of living here. Disillusioned, they retrench and head home. I’d hate for that to happen to you.

All the hard work associated with making Italy my home has been worth it, thus far. My heart has been in it from the get-go, and I felt reasonably prepared with the intestinal fortitude needed to deal with a long list of logistics and regulations.

So, here’s my advice based on my experience and my personality, starting with #1, which is….

Have a dream, but pair it with a well-thought out plan.

When The Secret came out, a lot of people thought they only had to dream, and imagine something happening. I believe that is only half of the formula. The other half is the hard work of researching, planning AND doing. Do a vision board (I did) if that helps, and make a list of the details of your ideal life in Italy. Then, start a notebook, and research all the requirements of getting residency (or a long-term stay permit – a permesso di soggiorno), and all the practicalities of living in Italy once you have arrived. There are several good websites with information for potential expats, but I felt like I had to wade through information that didn’t pertain to my particular situation. I needed to know what living in Italy would mean for an American, not for an EU citizen. Believe me, there are some big differences.

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A Coffee Please…the Italian Way

Un cafè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

Un caffè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

God, I love coffee, and Italy is paradise for me in this regard. On one hand, I pass up (most of the time) pizza, bread and pasta, because I am one of those crazy low-carb critters (it really works for me). If I passed up the incredible coffee here also…well, that just wouldn’t be right.

Having just returned from a brief trip to the States, and after having to depend on Starbucks for my daily “fixes”, I’m delighted to be back in coffee-Utopia. I had brunch at a great bakery while visiting South Carolina. The food was exceptional but I found the “American” coffee so foul that I was shocked something so awful would be served and consumed without a mass protest. How people could drink that stuff without wincing was beyond me.

You’re thinking I’m some kind of stuck-up coffee snob now, right? Think what you may, but the Italians have trained me to appreciate REALLY good coffee. And you can find it almost anywhere in Italy. My dear friend Arun, who has also spent ample time in Italy, and I often remark about the exceptional quality of a coffee or cappuccino at the Auto Grill – a chain of auto and truck stops all over Italy. Stop by most truck stops and service stations in the States and you’ll usually get something that will perk you up, but it won’t make your taste buds sing. Stop by an Auto Grill for a coffee and your ire will surge realizing you’ve been cheated with most of the offerings back home.

People often quote “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” For me, this goes for coffee as well.

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