Thursday, January 31, 2013

Italian school supplies, or, if you prefer: Italy in a nutshell

Dear Readers,

I realize this post about back-to-school supplies is about five months late, but that tells you how things are rolling here at Letters from Florence headquarters right now. We ask that you bear with us.

As I've noted previously, Italians have the uncanny knack of taking something simple and making it ridiculously complicated. It is their Achilles' heel as a nation. (Or, if the goal is to keep everyone in a perpetual state of stress and humiliated servitude, perhaps it is their Trojan Horse). At times I think there must be some sort of secret society at work in Italy, some diabolical clandestine group of ass-backward Masons whose sole purpose is to plot new ways of bureaucratic torture. I imagine that their secret meetings, held in dank old high-ceilinged halls and wreathed in stale cigar smoke, go something like this:

Il Presidente: "It has come to my attention that it is far too easy to do X; it only takes three simple steps. We cannot, in good conscience, possibly allow this situation to continue or the sniveling masses--with all that extra time on their hands--might realize that us power mongers are feeding this country to the dogs, like so many scraps of rotten manzo. Any ideas?"

Signore Sticuppaculo: "If I may, sir... Permit me to suggest that we add at least three dozen more hoops for the poor vermin to squiggle through. Thus, in order to do X, one must first do A, B, C, D, E, F and G, then jump to QRS and do H, I, J, and K. Pending the approval of W, and accompanied by the appropriately expensive marche da bollo (only to be obtained after having  performed 2(3x - 7) + 4 (3 x + 2) = 6 (5 x + 9 ) + 3, naturally), the pitiful rube need only complete L-M-N-O-P before being sent to the YZ office--which is of course only open between 9:55-10:06 every other third Thursday in a leap year--where he will receive an official printout (but only if the printer is working and/or an ink cartridge can be found, which it isn't/won't) detailing the applicant's paltry particulars which he can then present to the TUV bureau (which stands for Troppo Ubriaco per dirti Vaffanculo), thus, finally, achieving X--or insanity, whichever comes first."

Il Presidente [rubbing hands together with glee]: "Excellent plan! Keep them as busy as rats in a maze; after all, as we know, bureaucracy is the opiate of the people. Are we all agreed, then? Raise your withered talons. Good, agreed. I move that we break for two-hour lunch, subito." [much scraping of chairs and maniacal laughs all around]

School supplies are a case in point. As a non-native-born citizen, the whole Italian school supply thing has been uncharted territory for me: no trusty, straightforward Mead here to fall back on. Of course, it doesn't help that my kids' teachers never provide a detailed list at the beginning of the academic year as to what's needed, particularly in the area of notebooks (quaderni), of which a fiendishly bewildering array exists. Will someone please tell me why there's only, like, two kinds of deodorant to choose from in all of Italy but when it comes to notebooks--specifically the choice of line-rulings and squares available--there are more options than there are iPhone apps? When, like any self-sufficient American worth her spurs, I take the Italian bull by the horns and go forth on a quest for said notebooks, this is what I come up against...

Lines ruled for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th grade with and without margins. Lines ruled for middle school and high school. Squares, or quadretti, of 10 mm for 1st grade, 5mm for 2nd and 3rd grade (with or without margins), and 4mm for 4th grade and above (again, with or without margins). And I won't even get into the myriad Hello freakin' Kitty, slutty Winx or weirdly anthropomorphic Pokémon covers with which these notebooks are adorned.


It doesn't help matters in the slightest that while I contemplate the dizzying selection of quaderni at the supermarket on the day before school begins (okay spare me your eye-rolls), the usual seething mass of humanity roils around me like frantic tsunami-driven waves, crashing relentlessly against the half-plundered, decimated shelves and spurting glue sticks, colored pencils, and ring binders like angry foam. Parents shout and grab wildly at the stacks of notebooks and kids squeal and paw at pencil cases and markers, as if some bizarre scholastic apocalypse were about to befall the earth and there just might be a multiple-choice quiz afterwards.

But mwahaha! just because my kid is in 1st grade (or 2nd or 3rd or 4th grade) doesn't mean that that is the notebook I should buy. How could you ever think there would be such an internal logic to the enterprise, you hopeless fool? Sometimes the 2nd grade teacher wants the kids to use the 1st grade quadretti and the 2nd grade ruled quaderni without margins. Or the 4th grade teacher wants them to use the 5mm quadretti with margins for math, 5mm quadretti without margins for science, and the 3rd grade ruled quaderni with margins for Italian. If only I had a euro for every time I bought notebooks for my kids to take along on the first day of school, only to have them tell me afterwards that maestra said I got ABCD when I should have got WXYZ--I'd be, well, um, I'd have a lot of euros.

Nihilism: the belief that existence is senseless and useless. This is the word that dances in my mind like a malevolent mantra when I ponder this uniquely Italian back-to-school mad dash, this great September melee with everyone jousting and elbowing roughly and sorting and sifting frenziedly only to buy the wrong stuff because nobody really knows what they need until they buy it, send their kids to school with it, and have the teacher--like some cruel and indifferent deity--smite them with a word and point out the error of their ways.

That lovable old curmudgeon, Thomas Hobbes, said once that life during times of war is nasty, brutish and short. Oh, dear old Hobbesy, if only you had to face-off with the formidable and impossibly hydra-headed beast of school supplies in the Bel Paese--you'd realize that life isn't nearly short enough.

Yours from the Tuscan trenches,


Wednesday, January 02, 2013

At home in the world

That particular knowledge, that particulate sensation born from the intimate knowing of many cities, was metered out to me in the rhythm of my footfalls on the hoary cobblestones of Florence. The late-afternoon winter sun tilted feebly at stalwart old facades, burnishing their mellow ocher into deep gold; they glowed softly, with a radiating warmth, were hushed and serene.

Florence is a city of sinuous alleys and brooding buildings, adorned with somber stone rustications and cornices that stare aloofly down upon us souls who are merely passing through this earthly life. They have stories to tell, but rarely tell them. In the way of the old cities of this world, they withhold their true histories: the cries of infants swaddled within their walls; the feverishness of inflamed insurgents gathered round marred wooden tables; the tenebrous dealings of merchant men trading in wool and silk and the softer vices; the heavy clink of gold florins and the arcane utterances of 16th-century Tuscan. They do not deign to tell--why? Is it because we, too, are passing, will pass, and be no more, and that, as we canter blithely toward our inevitable end, they will eventually absorb us, too, and hold us just as dearly within the unyielding bosom of history--those cold, marble halls wherein the concerns of men are rendered moot?

Detroit, East Lansing, Paris, London, Dublin, Boston, San Francisco, New York, Sonoma, Pittsburgh. Geographies navigated through childhood, youth, my roaring twenties and beyond. Geographies in which I loved, let go, raged, and pondered this existence that seems as thin as vellum at times. Places in which I was tempered, challenged, chastened, enraptured, and even shriven. Places where I walked--oh, how much I've walked!--lived, and became.

And Florence, perhaps most of all. Florence has given me the lion's share: a heavy tapestry woven with the baroque pattern of human experience, a table laden with the things that would nourish me as much as they would have me poisoned--in short, an arc of such cosmic sweep that would see me catapulted into the heavens to regale the stars with tales of human achievement and folly.

This is what I know: that one can have many homes, that one's feet can walk many a street, in strange or familiar or far-off lands. And one's soul can be sheathed in casings of different stripes. But to feel at home in the world--that is true freedom. That is the place in which it soars.

Wishing all you dear Readers a wonderful New Year.