Thursday, August 17, 2017

Moving to Italy: "Quattro Bambini!"

When we arrived in Italy we realized we were different. More than just our language and our expectations, it was our sheer numbers that set us apart. It started at the airport. The immigration officer collected our passports then looked down at the young faces staring up at him and exclaimed, "Quattro bambini? Ah, Madonna!  Bene, bene." Loosely translated, that means, "Four children? Oh my God!  Good for you." This wasn’t what I expected. I thought we’d fit right in.

In California we were definitely not the norm, and when the population-control bandwagon rolled into town, we didn’t fit. I had often received cold stares in stores, in parks, and even once in church, as strangers' eyes flicked down the row of my children and then back up to my face to register their disapproval. I stared right back at them. I was proud of my children, and I loved them with a fierceness that surprised me.

I had internalized the stereotype of the typical Italian family as portrayed in American movies and television—a loud boisterous household with dozens of bambini. Italy was a Catholic country, and since the pope lived in Rome, I thought that the Italian people would be especially careful about obeying the church rules. We knew that after a long fight, the Italian secular government had managed to legalize birth control only four months before we arrived, so we expected lots of babies. Finally, I had thought, we’d fit in. Our family might even seem small. 

But my expectations couldn’t have been more wrong. I was amazed to discover that the population in Italy was potentially on the decline. Most of the families we met had just one child. We were in the heart of the industrial north, where the economics of raising a child had trumped church law. For the people of that region, it was an accepted part of their life that you created only the number of children you felt you could afford. In my innocence I had not considered that my husband was an only child, and that I had many more cousins than he did. But the members of my family are dreamy, idealistic Irish-Catholics, the opposite of the pragmatic Northern Italians. Rather than feeling at home at last, I realized we were still out of place.

Paul, the oldest, turned five just after our arrival at Gabi. He looked like George, with the same long face and wavy hair, which, like his father’s, had been blonde until the age of four. He would get George’s thick, curly, brown hair when he grew older.  He was a typical oldest child: conscientious, kind, and anxious to please us. From a young age he focused on what he was doing and worked hard. He was very outgoing and had been well liked by all of the new relatives he met in England, as well as the ones in Italy.

James, at three and a half when we arrived in Italy, was a little more happy-go-lucky than Paul. He too, looked a lot like his father, but his round face reflected my Irish ancestry, and his hair was a light brown, as mine had been. He was much shyer with strangers than Paul, and he often shrunk back when he was approached by anyone he didn’t know. A typical middle child, he was adept at amusing himself with his Lego blocks or by looking at books. He could also stay focused on a task and was generally a cooperative, if talkative, child.

Matthew also looked just like George and shared George’s long face. His hair was straight like mine, and dark brown like George’s, and he had brown eyes like George. Even at nineteen months, his energy level surpassed that of anyone in the family. It was hard to manage him peacefully for a full day. He challenged decisions he didn’t like with loud yells and a defiant red face. He longed to keep up with his older brothers and bellowed when he had to stay behind.  In compensation for his volatile nature, he was a very loving child who hugged as often as he howled.  

Margaret Ann was very different in coloring from the boys, or George and me. She had silky blonde hair and deep blue eyes. Her face combined features of both of us, but she looked like neither of us. She had a sunny nature, and she mothered Matthew. I often found her hugging him when he was upset about something—at least twice a day. She also told him off if he misbehaved, which he didn’t take very well. She was more content to play with her toys than Matthew. Whereas he would yell in frustration and give up when a puzzle piece didn’t fit, she played around with it until it did. She was easy-going, like George, and loved to sit and listen to me read books to her. I was lucky in that all of my children were bright. I worked hard to stimulate their minds, as I had read in my childcare books that the first five years were the most important. I knew that the rhythm of their young lives stayed with them forever. I hoped that the farm would add an interesting back-beat to that rhythm. 

My focus on educating them was important when September came and with it the need to enroll Paul in school.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Moving to Italy: In-laws

That sounds really good doesn’t it? Except I left a lot out. I wasn’t always as magnanimous as it seems. George was used to his parents, but he agreed that we needed our own space. While we separated ourselves upstairs, we were still indebted to them for providing us with a place to live. Part of this debt was worked off in manual labor. George hacked at weeds, chopped and hauled firewood, painted doors and walls, and did whatever else his parents asked. One side of me knew this was only fair. They were in their sixties, and his father’s physical activity was limited by arthritis. His mother was healthy, but some chores, like chopping wood, were too much for her. It was natural that they should look to their only child for help. 

Another side of me gradually began to resent their constant demands on George’s time. I came to dread Marino’s voice as it echoed up the stairwell in increasing volume, “Giorgio.  Giorgio!  GIORGIO!”  No matter what we were doing, his parents expected George to drop everything to come to their aid. And I resented it. Boy did I resent it! 

Poor George was caught between their demands downstairs and me nattering at him upstairs, “Why do you have to go now? Can’t they wait?” to “How about you paint our rooms first and their rooms second?” “Why are they more important than us?” (Because they owned the house, Silly, I tell me younger self.) They acted as if George had never left home. And in a way, he hadn’t.

This was made much worse when George realized while painting their rooms that everything upstairs echoed off the high ceilings and bounced downstairs in perfect clarity. Oh boy! How much of my whining had they heard? 

And what about our lovemaking! Yikes!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Moving to Italy: Creating a Home: Painting

When we arrived at Gabi, the house had been closed up for a few years. During their occasional visits, my in-laws had not done much major maintenance, and after many winters, the dampness of snow and rain had seeped through the walls and into the paint. The walls and doors and windows of every room were chipped and peeling. When I looked around in those first few weeks, I saw the house badly needed some care. In between bouts of clearing brush around the house, and before the major tree chopping, George and I scraped off the old paint, starting with the doors and the windows.
The paint on the doors had been a high gloss gray that had faded, curled, and chipped, becoming a dull and depressing entrance to each room. We realized that the old paint was probably lead-based, so we waited to scrape and sand until the twins napped in the afternoons while the boys played outside. Or until evenings, when they all slumbered safely in their room. On American television we had seen vivid television spots that showed a little girl absentmindedly eating paint chips while looking through a window. The voice-over warned parents to prevent lead poisoning in children by eliminating all paint chips. And so we did. (We had no idea that sanding the paint probably left powdered lead residue in the air that could still hurt them.) We wanted to renew our surroundings and erase years of fingerprints, smoke film, and dampness that had worn down the original finish. I also wanted to erase the presence of all the others who had lived, successfully or not, in that house at Gabi. We wanted to make a clean, fresh start, to make our own mark on our own part of the house.  

We settled on an off-white, high gloss paint for both the doors and the windows, one that could be washed. (Ironically, I realize now that it was also probably lead-based.) But our biggest problem was the number of doors. Every room had three sets of double doors, one to the hallway (with the stone stairs), one to a balcony, and another set that was shared with the adjoining room. Only the living room had no balcony access, but it had an extra set of windows, and it adjoined two rooms, so had three sets of doors plus an extra window! In total there were eighteen doors, each one about eight feet tall and two sided—a lot of wood to scrape, sand, and paint. (See picture below or watch the background in Paul’s birthday video.)

A later picture and actually downstairs, but mirrors the upstairs doors.


We decided to start with the room-side of the doors. The hallway-sides were not as chipped and dirty, and we didn’t have to look at them as often, so they could wait. When we made our plans we didn’t realize it would take weeks to finish one side of all of the doors and both sides of the windows, but we were anxious to get started as we knew the shine of clean paint would brighten our mood as we created our own space.  

We considered carefully the wall colors to surround us. On our bedroom ceiling a blue mural hung over our bed: a central cluster of flowers surrounded by a striped and flowered border. Although the mural was partially damaged, it was very pretty and leant a distinctly Italian air to our private life, so we wouldn't paint it. For the walls of our bedroom, we matched a blue from the mural.
Sample of ceiling

Our living room had three sets of windows and lots of light, so we chose a cheerful, pale lemon-lime color for the walls, to reflect the sun. When we finished it became my favorite room. I still remember the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” blasting from my tape recorder as I danced around with the bright walls reflecting the sun and my mood. The darker kitchen had only one set of windows and one narrow set of balcony doors, and it was more likely to suffer splashes and spills, so we decided to paint the walls a light, bright ivory semi-gloss. With fresh cans of paint lined up in the garage, we wanted to start immediately, but we had to wait.

George’s parents decided to install central heating with radiators in each room, another major upheaval that interfered with our painting project. Dario, the stonemason chipped channels in the solid concrete walls into which the hot-water pipes and wiring were nestled, and then he plastered over them. That meant each room was filled with dust from the pounding, and every room sported long channels of raw plaster beside each radiator which had to be painted. We waited until the stonemason had finished, and the oil-heater had been installed and tested, before we continued. We couldn't wait to get started on our project, but first George had to paint both sides of his parents’ eight doors downstairs. It was frustrating to wait, but painting my in-laws’ doors and walls was a small price to pay for their investment in central heating for the entire house.

That sounds really good doesn’t it? Except I left a lot out.