Friday, June 30, 2017

Moving to Italy:Day 1

Upstairs in the farmhouse, George’s parents had converted two of the bedrooms into a living/dining room and a kitchen. The other two rooms remained bedrooms. That would be our apartment as long as we lived there. 

After following George’s cousins up the stairs, our first stop was the bathroom for the boys, which was on the landing, just beyond the top of the stairs.  Great, I thought, every time they use the bathroom I’ll worry about them tumbling to their deaths.  A plywood and glass wall set off the tiny bathroom from the main stairwell, but the beveled-glass top half provided a perfect silhouette of anyone using the toilet and bath.  I made a mental note to sew some curtains, and soon.  Inside, the space was too narrow for a regular bath, so it had been fitted with a short, sit-in tub.  A small electric tank overhead looked as if it could heat just enough water for one moderate-sized person to splash herself clean. 

We pulled the chain on the cistern above the toilet, and water gushed and swirled.  It worked well, and it was inside.  George had told me that his parents had created the bathroom from a small storage area just a few years before.  When he had stayed at Gabi in his teens, their toilet was outside next to the barn, and Zio Remo, who lived in the ancient house next to ours, still used an outhouse.  I thanked God, and my in-laws, for indoor plumbing. To change their diapers, we lay Margaret Ann and Matthew on a plastic-covered bed in a large bedroom.  We had used the last of the disposable diapers, so George hauled in one of our suitcases, and I unpacked the cloth ones.  

Laundry was a big concern for me. The children were young, and they spilled, dropped, and wet themselves with some regularity. Disposable diapers were not as widely used then as they are now, and they were expensive. I had always used cloth diapers in California, and I had no qualms about doing so on the farm.  I had not yet been struck by the reality of washing dirty diapers, wet pajamas, and soiled clothing by hand, and I unpacked those cloth diapers as if it were the most normal thing in the world.  How naïve I was!  I thought of myself as a new pioneer woman carving out a life on the old frontier—strong and brave. I wouldn’t need the wimpy modern conveniences. If the Italian farm woman could do without, so could I. What I didn’t realize was that the Italian farm woman didn’t do without. Maybe her mother or grandmother had, but the modern Italian woman knew how to take care of her needs. I had made unwarranted assumptions based on very little experience or knowledge.  Young and naïve, most of my ideas about Italy had been formed through watching old Italian movies or listening to George talk in vague generalities. 

The cousins were very kind and cheerful.  Although I couldn’t communicate much with them, I watched them carefully and exchanged frequent smiles. To dispel the dampness, they had piled wood into the old stove in the upstairs kitchen, and they worked it into a warm fire. Not too much smoke escaped. Next to the glowing wood box, they pointed out to me the stove's narrow oven that I dreaded having to use. As they worked, I noticed they lit the propane hot plate with long matches. Later, they flipped a switch to activate the water pump when the tap ran dry.  George explained that water was pumped up from the well beside the house to a rooftop cistern, where gravity allowed it to flow to our taps. While we took care of the children, George’s cousins prepared lunch. When the children were cleaned and changed, I retrieved my camera and began to document the buildings and the scenery of our new home to send back to my sister.


George and a cousin’s husband exploring the courtyard, James in front. Matthew at the barn door. The "apple house" below. Taken from 2nd floor balcony.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Moving to Italy--Some backstory

Before we left California, George had worked for four years in Los Angeles County's Child Protective Services, and he was worn out with the stress of overseeing children in abysmal conditions. The almost-daily task of removing children from their parents had drained him.  Even though their mother had abused them, it was still “Mommy!” they cried when they were taken away.  On one long and difficult day, a father threatened him with a gun.  George just looked at the man, sighed and said, "You'd be doing me a favor."  When he came home that night and told me the story, George said that when he saw the gun pointed at him he was so emotionally depleted that it would have been a relief to end it all. It was obvious he had to leave the agency. 

We stayed up late discussing alternate work.  He wanted to try teaching but didn’t have a credential.  He couldn’t afford to quit work to get one, and night school would have taken years.  He needed relief quicker than that.  We didn’t consider my return to work; without a college degree and with four little ones, the childcare costs would have exceeded any salary I could make. Late in the evening he brought up an idea we had discussed before.  He felt ready to return to his family farm in northern Italy, in a rural Piedmont valley between Turin and Milan, to work the land as his grandfather had done, and as his two uncles were still doing.  Since my mother’s death and my sister’s marriage, I had no strong ties in the U.S. His parents were delighted to retire back to the farm with us, and we knew our children were young enough to adapt easily to another country.  I had no idea what life on a farm meant, but I was willing to find out. I was 24 years old, and George was 28.

To me, Italy seemed an exciting and exotic country; to George, it was returning home.  To both of us, it was a place to escape from the tensions, troubles, and divisions in post-Vietnam America to what we thought would be a less complicated life.  We could work for ourselves, raise our own food, and determine our own hours.  We could let our children run free in the fields, breathe the clean country air, and learn about raising animals.  We wanted to go backwards in time and distance to a less poisonous environment than what we saw all around us in 1970s California.  Since George’s parents owned a four-bedroom house at the farm, with a town nearby, it seemed the perfect solution. So with stars in our eyes we boarded the plane, first for England to visit my relatives, and then on to Turin where George’s cousins were waiting.

Visiting my grandmother in London