Hello friends. It’s 2023. How the hell is it 2023?
I wrote a long, meandering post that I’d hoped to finish for the solstice, but somehow it just didn’t come together. The week before Cleo’s school let out for winter break ended up being dominated by a dizzyingly complex paperwork project relating to our Visas (a story for another time) and my thoughts felt muddled and incoherent. Then we left for an adventure in the south and I didn’t write a single word during the two weeks we were away.
Here, in no specific order, are some random highlights from our road trip across Campania and Apulia (Puglia):
Eating pizza frittura on the curb in Naples on Christmas Eve, making friends with the resident cat in Herculaneum, watching Andy swim in the cold waters of Polignano a Mare and Praiano, exploring the lovely city of Trani, walking through the 1,000 year-old olive orchards on New Year’s Eve in Ostuni, Nonna’s cooking in Ostuni, hiking around the river gorge of Matera, misty morning caves in Gravina en Puglia and Bangladeshi food on the train home from Naples.
And, some not as fun parts of the trip:
Traffic and parking on the Amalfi Coast, stumbling upon a plaza studded with groups of people shooting up on Christmas night in Naples, random stops by the Carabinieri, our truly disgusting picnic lunch on a too-crowded beach in beautiful Polignano a Mare, 4 pm every afternoon when we’re all hungry and tired and kinda hate each other, and driving in and around Naples (my constant refrain: “These people are sociopaths.”).
Now that we’re back in Venice and the ubiquitous boxes of panettone and pan d’oro lining the floors and shelves of the markets and bakeries are dwindling, the flood of tourists has momentarily retreated, and the kids have returned to school, it feels as if we’re rounding the corner on the next phase of this journey. After 5 months we’re settling into a bit more familiarity with our daily routines, moving towards more facility with the language, and making more subtle discoveries.
Today, in an attempt to shore up the armature of a daily writing routine, I made my way to St. Mark’s Square to the reading room of the Marciana Library to sequester myself in solitude and enforced quiet. I put on my tried and true Glenn Gould Goldberg Variations loud enough to disguise the creaking of chairs and clearing of throats, and Alice Coltrane when things got too serious.
It took me awhile to gain access to the library and to get my hands on a library card; like everything here, it required extensive paperwork. Once all the forms had been filled and approved, and the librarian was finally ready to print the card, the machine was broken. Classic. The good news is that I now have access to the oldest library in Venice where I can sit amongst the stacks of exquisite, moldering books and manuscripts and think my thoughts without the distractions of the internet. I love the smell of this place: woody, vaguely marine, and definitely full of whatever scents ghost leave behind when they haunt a building.
I’ve also established a routine of swimming at the community pool at Sant’Alvise. The pool here is much like public pools everywhere else —humid and a little funky around the margins —except for one particularity: there is an entire room dedicated to hair drying.
Italians are fanatical about wet hair. Going outside with a wet head invokes fear of the “bad air” thought to cause a range of illnesses, including indigestion and colds. There is also a general wariness of the “colpo d'aria” – or, literally, a “blast of air” which is given as the explanation for any host of mysterious illnesses, aches or pains. Thus, Italians flip their collars, wear scarves, and supposedly don “health shirts” (maglietta della salute) to avoid the maladies associated with the dreaded breeze—though I haven’t seen evidence of these shirts anywhere except for sale at the ubiquitous flea markets in bigger cities.
Cleo’s routine goes like this: Monday through Saturday she catches the boat to Venice by 7:26 am. From 8 am till 1pm she has 5 classes back to back; all in Italian. They range from Italian grammar (no surprise she is completely lost in this class) to geography, math, history, Spanish, English, technology, music and art. After 1pm they eat lunch, have a break, play sports, do homework and get lectures from their homeroom teacher on topics such as “how to be a person.” At 5 pm I pick her up outside her school and we catch the boat back to Murano, where she usually collapses on the couch for the remainder of the evening. Attending school on Saturday is the bane of her existence, so we’ve adopted an attitude of Saturday as a negotiable school day, opting for trips in and around the Veneto region as reasonable alternative to classroom learning.
In many ways Cleo has had the most immersive experience, and has been forced to acclimate in ways that both Andy and I have not. She has been in an almost constant state of disequilibrium since school started and often comes home depleted and overwhelmed. She’s experienced a lot of anxiety and shed a lot of tears in the past four months, struggling to navigate the confusion of being a new student in a new school without the ability to communicate.
But, it’s gradually getting better. As her comprehension of Italian improves, so does her attitude about school. She is figuring out how to navigate the Italian school system, the culture of the classroom and also how each one of her teachers operate. Most importantly, she’s making friends, and that’s the real game changer.
We’ve had some interesting conversations about how language acquisition usually begins with a period of listening—the “silent” phase— and then eventually speaking; first in individual words, then small chunks, and then finally in sentences. For awhile she self-described as being in the “listening phase.” She refused to speak Italian out in the world, relying instead on my broken and ridiculous attempts, then made fun of me for screwing everything up. She clearly understood what people were saying, she just wasn’t willing to make an ass of herself like I was.
However, in the past few weeks she’s started to speak in full sentences, and in a few clutch moments, has become the translator for our family. It gives her great pleasure to correct my non-existent grammar and terrible accent and I delight in letting her make fun of me. It’s not often that an 11-year-old gets to be the resident expert in the household.
Plus, her hallowed position in middle school makes her the perfect conduit of Italian slang and swear words for our household — a role in which she is excelling. The current family favorite is: “Ma che cazzo fai?” (What the fuck are you doing?) It’s a real keeper.
The process of trying to learn a new language has led all three of us into more wide-ranging conversations about meta-cognition. Despite the fact that I love language, and have a constant monologue in my head, learning a new language is extremely challenging for me. There are two obvious factors that I’ve recognized that contribute to my struggles:
I have a not-so-great memory.
My sensory experience of the world is overwhelming. I have an incredibly hard time just focusing on sound over all my other senses. I can do it for short amounts of time, but for the most part I am almost constantly distracted by other sensory input. Shout out to all the other HSP’s out there!
The third factor made itself clearer during a conversation with my sister when she was here in November. We made the connection that we both have the same challenge with hearing the lyrics to music. Both of us struggle to distinguish the lyrics as separate from any other part of a song; they somehow blend into every other sound in the mix, much like another musical instrument. While individual words will pop out, for the most part the vocal track is just one more piece of the tapestry of the music.
The same thing happens with language. When I listen to people speaking Italian, it is incredibly difficult to distinguish between the individual words—it all just flows together. Obviously, just like music, the more focused my listening, and the more familiar I get with the language the easier it is to hear the individual sounds and words. But DAMN it is HARD. I have to wade through all of the other sensory input jostling for my attention to focus on the sounds, and not allow myself to get distracted by the quality of light illuminating the speaker’s face, or the patterns on the rug under their feet, or the smell of someone’s perfume behind me.
I also have to silence the constant narrative in my head.
Apparently only 30- 50% of people have an inner voice in their head narrating their lived experience. I am one of those people and neither my husband nor my daughter are. Researchers think that this “self talk” begins in childhood with language acquisition. According to psychologist Helene Brenner, “The default mode network is what produces that whole running narrative in your head—all the things you think about, connecting your past to your present and thinking about the future, all of your opinions and self-comparisons. It’s the seat of creativity and imagination, but it’s also the seat of neurosis, depression and anxiety.” NO SHIT!
So, if I can learn to silence my inner Larry David, I might have a fighting chance at learning Italian too.
This time of year is always our season of hibernation in Portland. We read, watch tv and movies, make art and trudge around in the muddy wet and cold. That routine tracks here as well, minus the mud. It’s an interior time of year, and that can feel both cozy and lonesome.
January is also a month freighted with memory. Andy and I met at a wedding in Davis, California on December 23rd, 2000. One year later I made a phone call to him from an internet cafe (ie: room with a dial up connection) in the the highlands of Bolivia and asked him if I should come home, and whether we might take a chance on being together. He said yes. Within days I’d packed up, hopped a bus across Bolivia, boarded a plane in La Paz, and arrived in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve where he was waiting for me in the Arrivals terminal. He drove me down the Bay to my parents’ house for a quick hug and and a shower, and then up to the tiny cabin with no electricity on Little Black Mountain—where we’d eventually live—to drink, dance, and set off fireworks with our friends until the sun came up.
That particular New Year’s Eve is cemented in my mind as a turning point for us. We didn’t know yet that we’d committed to a shared life trajectory, and that choices generated by youthful infatuation would become the foundation of everything that followed. Twenty two years later, as we watched the fireworks together from a balcony in the small town of Ostuni, I felt overwhelmed by the resonance of those decisions. Between us stood our daughter, eyes bright, taking in the magnificence of the colorful charges booming around us.
Prying ourselves from the life we’d built felt as necessary and essential as climbing aboard that plane when I was 22. We needed to uproot and disrupt. We left behind our house, our cat, our garden, our jobs, our friends, family and community. We doubled down on the “togetherness” of the pandemic —and all that entails—and are here wandering around and trying to figure out what moving forward looks like. The gift is distance and perspective as well as the friction of the new.
Venice isn’t our forever home, but it sure is easy to love right now, and that’s definitely good enough.
Season 2 of Reservation Dogs was so, so good. Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the season. The show somehow manages to be consistently hilarious and profound.
I read two books this month that wrecked me for everything I’ve subsequently attempted to read: Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin and The Candy House by Jennifer Egan. Both deal with the impact of technology on human relationships, but come at it from very different perspectives.
Speaking of being wrecked, I went in cold and was completely leveled by the film The Banshees of Inisherin. It is exquisitely shot, written and acted. There are moments of horror and comedic genius— a potent mix, but DEFINITELY not for the faint of heart.
And, for a little levity, here’s a link to the mix I’ve been making on Spotify. Enjoy!
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Love every episode of this intermittent diary.
Traveling is definitely difficult; I’d guess almost impossible unless with someone you love. Your recent trip certainly seems like it fit that description! Beautiful in parts, and really arduous at other times. Andy had said driving Amalfi coast was extremely challenging.
I envy you that incredible library and the privilege of entering it. Even if the books are mostly in Italian. Such a gorgeous space. I find it very intriguing. Everything there is so OLD. It’s like time travel to be there.
Love hearing about Cleo most of all. She will surely be the most fluent in the shortest amount of time! That is a pretty tough routine for 6th grade. Glad she is taking Spanish; hopefully something she can understand!
I have always felt that listening to a new language is a string of incomprehensible run-on words. I think English only seems like individual words bc we know in our brain that they are. We just can’t process the new words fast enough! Does that make sense?
Cleo has an upper hand bc of her Spanish immersion since kindergarten. Her brain has learned pathways to start identifying individual words sooner.
That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. 🤷🏻♀️
Love you all and love connecting. ❤️❤️❤️
I feel so humbled and inspired by Cleo. Next time I catch myself in need of a boost of bravery, I'm just going to picture her going to school 6 days a week in a language she's just learning to understand, and people she's just beginning to know. Damn.
I love and miss you all.