“And I can’t even get cheddar!”

Italy is just as frustrating as it is beautiful.  This is not a surprise, but that does not make it any easier to navigate the nonsense and to bolster my reserves of patience.

During the first day of orientation for new teachers, our director talked about the importance of recognizing culture shock, even when it doesn’t seem like the country is that different.  He said it is especially hard coming from the US, which is “Top in the service industry, number 10.  They do everything for you.  Pack your bags, carry you to the car . . . “

We laughed knowingly as he continued, “I lived in Tanzania where we often didn’t have running water.  I’d call the water company, but that worker there often had no running water for months.  Why would he care if I was out for days or weeks? Tanzania is about a 1 or 2 in service.”  He drew the numbers on a timeline on the whiteboard.  “Here in Italy, we are at a 5 or 6.  It’s not that bad, but it’s different.  You won’t get the service you get in the states.”

When I first arrived on August 22, my top priority was getting Internet.  3 days later, I finally found a shop that spoke just enough English to help me choose sim cards, get an iphone, and sign up for ADSL Internet.  ADSL?  No cable or fiber optic?  Nope.  But ok, I’m good just to get connected.  After an hour of discussions (yes, seriously) I had my vodafone base station which would work with ADSL and an Internet key to get online right away.  “Someone will call you in 15 days,” said the sales rep Simona.

“15 days?”  I was shocked.  I thought a few days with a long window of waiting like in NYC.

“Yes, the technician.”

But will he speak English?  Oh geeze . . .

And I still couldn’t leave the story because of a Vodafone system flaw that did not allow them to connect my brand new just purchased Sim card with the brand new iphone, both bought together in the store.  Customer service kept the sales rep on hold and gave them the runaround.  Hours later, they figured out a fix and sent me on my way, connected and happy tho drained.  I had jumped through my first hoop.

Running the internet off the key was slow but at least it granted me instant access.  Over the next two weeks, I learned, with massive difficulty that the station can run the wifi off the key, which would save me from overheating my laptop with the key plugged right in.  Before that could work, though, I had to wait for an automatic system download that unfroze my brand new box and allowed me to use it.  I had tried calling customer service, a toll line, and asked “Parle Inglese?”


And then I didn’t know what to say next other than goodbye. Nobody they can even transfer me to?  Ahh, Italy.  I was going to have to get used to my complete lack of ability to communicate as I rapidly try to acquire a working rudimentary grasp of the language to communicate.

So with the wifi working, I had jumped through another hoop.  Yet, 18 days had passed and STILL no call from the technician.  Then, at last, I was in the middle of my 5 hour mandatory Italian culture class at the prefettura, when I received a phone call and deciphered “Vodafone” in the Italian and soon learned the technician was coming on Tuesday between 10 and 11.  yes!  I didn’t get to choose the date, but it’s ok.  I got coverages for work, stayed home and at 10:15, they were at my door.

Wooh!  I’m getting ADSL.  Gonna jump through another hoop.  Movies, Skype, faster downloading, and back to my normal surfing techno geek lifestyle. Yay yay yay!

“There is a problem,” said my technician in a mixture of Italian and English.  “I must get my colleague.”

An hour and lots of drilling and fumbling later, the technician said, “It still won’t work but we will switch it on tonight,” and they were gone after helping me sweep the debris.

I eagerly checked my box every time I walked by the Vodafone station, but no ADSL.  Days passed, nothing.  I went to work and explained the situation to the admin who sent the realtor over.  The realtor did not speak much English, but the next day, I learned that the landlord’s son lived there, and they tried to get ADSL, but it didn’t work so he just always used the Internet key.  They turned the phone lines off to the building because it is so old.  “What???”  You can’t rent out an apartment with no phone lines.  And it was just beautifully renovated . . .I have marble flooring and even some US outlets.  But no phone line?  WTF?  I don’t get it.

“Isn’t that something the realtor should have told us?” I asked dumfounded.

“Yes!” said the admin all knowingly.  “But this is Italy, a country that has 5 different types of plugs.”

“Oh yeah, I have an iron and can’t figure out where to plug it in.”

The admin sent over the school’s electrician to try to activate the phone line in the house (on the landlord’s dime).  The electrician poked around for 2 hours, wires dangling everywhere, and he only spoke about 3 words of English.  With the help of google translate and a few calls to the admin, we were able to call vodafone.  Even though Telecom Italia, the phone company, did the installation, you can’t call them directly because they were subcontracted by Vodafone. So Vodafone created a ticket and said a rep would come to fix the line in 3 days.  “Aspetta.”  Wait.  They always want you to wait.  Nonsense, wait too long and nothing will get done. And I paid 35 euros for ADSL I was not getting, meanwhile an Internet key is 14 euros a month.  And this service is slooooow and doesn’t work when it’s cloudy.  NO.

So I waited, and of course that was Monday and now it is Friday and I still don’t have ADSL.  The admin said, “It’s a fine line between patience and yelling and getting aggressive.  After we’ve waited enough, then it’s ok to say ‘How could you do this to me?  Fix it now.'”

“Will I get a refund for the month I couldn’t access it?”

“No . .. but we can try.”

While all this was happening, my bank card was misdirected to the wrong address because the school wrote 38, when my address is 38C and there are about 10 other 38s on the block including one solid 38 apartment building.  And the Italian post, being notoriously slow and unreliable . . . sent the card to who knows where.  The bank sent another one 2 weeks ago, and it still hasn’t arrived, so they walk me over to the bank to withdraw money with me . . .  And I JUST got the code to access my online account.  When I returned home after another stressful frustrating day dealing with bank and ADSL, I check for my bank card, but alas, just a BILL from Vodafone for the installation fees.

OMG . . .

And of course, the next day my shipment from the US was about to arrive.  Hurray!  But I tried contacting the UK company to let them know about the notoriously tiny streets of Genoa, which an International Shipping company should really take into consideration.  I take a day off from work at the suggestion of my school’s director who said, “It is important for you to relax and get settled.”

So I waited.  Waited for the phone call from the driver the day before, which I did not get.  I continually contacted the company to make sure they had my Italian phone number and an address where they could deliver the goods easily.  They could not come on my tiny ancient Roman road  . . . they’d have to park nearby, so I sent very detailed directions.

Shipment day arrived.  I woke up early as I knew I’d be the first delivery. I waited by the phone, kept checking the phone, and even turned on my old phone just in case they didn’t give my new number.  At 12 noon, I was informed that my truck broke down 2 hours North of me and they were stuck waiting repair.  I’d hear from my driver shortly.

5:30pm, no word from the driver.  I wrote to the UK office, who said they’d probably come tomorrow.  Frustrated and exhausted, I contacted work to arrange coverages on standby so I could run over to my apartment for the delivery.  (They also offered I could take another day, but that is too many days away from the kids).

Freed from the apartment, I hiked to the supermarket.  I say hike, because I have to literally hike up a steep hill to get there and lug the goods back.  As soon as I sat down to have some chicken and cheese, my old international phone rang.

“Hi, we have some boxes and a sofa for you,” said a friendly Irish voice.

Soon I learned that they did not have my new number or get the directions.  They said they were 300 yards from me and wanted to carry the goods down that crazy hill. No way dude, too far and steep.  They were stuck by the school and after 40 minutes on the phone, I got them to the street I needed them to be to get closer.  BUT . . . the truck was so high that it wouldn’t fit under the highway overpass.  They had to park on the highway and walk down with all my boxes, electronics and SOFA from the highway, down the stairs, and down a little winding steep street that led to my door — maybe 150 meters.

It started raining as they were finishing, and I offered them food and whatever they wanted.  I also had no money to tip them for their extraordinary efforts so I asked if I could go to a bankomat to pay them.  “It’s not your fault.  Dont’ worry about it.”

And they were on their way to Monaco.  Such nice guys, and everything arrived intact.  I had my things.  Whew!

Earlier in the night, as they were unloading the truck, I called my dad at my breaking point, in absolute frustration and just needed to VENT.  I said something very similar to the following in a rambling monologue:

“I’ve had enough.  This is ridiculous.  This country is so broken.  Nothing works.  I can’t even receive packages.  I can’t get money.  My ADSL doesn’t work.  I can’t even buy cheddar!”  I was so serious, but even as I said the last line, I realized how ridiculous it sounded, but it’s a valid complaint.  No variety, so shut in their ways, fearing global influence, fearing anything non-Italian, that we can’t even have cheddar cheese.  All Italian, all the time.  And that philosophy seems to have permeated the lifestyles, where they do things the Italian way, even if it doesn’t make the most sense.  Whatever . . .

In my rant, I added, “If I could get back on a plane, I would.  I’m done.  It’s a frustrating place to live.  Teachers left last year because they were so frustrated with the nonsense.  The school is trying to help, but it’s ridiculous.  Someone already left this year after 2 weeks.  2 weeks!” I was so loud that I think neighbors heard me, so there goes my reputation in the neighborhood — there I was being a spoiled New Yorker Ugly American, unable to adjust to “normale,” the way things are done here.

“It’s good for visiting,” said my Dad.

“No it’s not.  It’s frustrating for that, too. T hat’s why I avoided it for so many years.  I’m done with this country.”

As I said the words, I knew I didn’t mean them.  I instantly felt bad, like I had just talked badly about a boyfriend.  I didn’t want to betray my Italy, my host country that offered so much to me: beauty, happiness, peace . . .  Italy had changed my life.  I just had to navigate this nonsense.  One hoop at a time, I’ll get settled, I’ll learn more about the culture and the language.  And at the end of the day, it all still makes much more sense and is way friendlier than working for the DOE in NYC.

More on Milan

At the end of my last post, I was in a spa enjoying the bliss in Milan yet feeling the tug of home.  I guess my life will always be like this.  I feel a bit at home everywhere and not completely at home anywhere. Perhaps all true travelers feel like this?  And now I have to realize that I’m not just a traveler; I’m an expat.  I have planted roots, however shallow, in this new culture. I am living a dream I have had for at least 11 years.  Now, I am at home waiting for my goods to arrive from NYC, further proof that I’m here to stay a while.  So I will continue with my Milan story.

In the middle of my spa experience, I went to the locker to check my iPhone for train schedules.  (I can’t even begin to say how much this internet access has lightened my load, saved me money on guidebooks, and simplified my travel experience — just like it made my last few months in NY extra special.  I can’t go back to life pre-smart phone . . .)  I saw I had two options.  One option would mean I’d have to leave the spa now, rushing to the station with wet hair, and ride home for two hours.  The last option, a 10:25 train, would take 3 hours instead of 1.5, dropping me off in central Genoa around 1:30 am, after all the busses stopped and I’d have a difficult time getting home.  Slightly dismayed, I thought “Hey, a hostel!  I can look one up right now.”  I didn’t have to run around looking for an internet cafe, or consult a guidebook I didn’t get.  I could book now, load the directions and head on over.  There were several options in a shared dorm for around 16 euros.  Perfect.  Yay me!

I decided to sort out all the details later, and headed back to the spa waters where I melted into water myself.  Cozy and red cheeked, I went for one more round of food, sipping mint tea, and took a brief nap in the “Earth” relaxation room, where I literally sunk into a mattress squishier and cozier than any I had ever tried.  After this brief nap, I was ready to sleep.  I rinsed off in the shower, enjoying the thermal spring infused spa products, then unlocked my locker by tapping a special bracelet on the number, and reached for my iPhone.  I’d better book now.  I found a bed in a mixed dorm at a hostel near Buenos Aires, apparently a famous shopping street.  When I went to book, the phone died.  What? No!!!

I fell asleep last night without charging my phone, so it only got some juice just before I left.  Also, the locker was draining the signal, I’m sure.  Why was I not smart enough to turn it off?  Because I was trying to have a “no worries” day.  “Ok, it will all work out, I thought.”  I might be able to make the 10:25.  I dashed onto the Metro, but got on in the WRONG direction.  I flipped around, and it was clear that I would be a few minutes too late.  No!  Also, I had left my ATM card at home by accident, had no cash, and the ticket machines didn’t take my credit card.  I wouldn’t have had time for the long lines in the train station anyway . . . and while it IS an option to book online . . . my phone wasn’t working.

Ok, ok . . .  Big city, plenty of options.  I got out at the station to search for an Internet point or posters or brochures for hostels.  It used to be that you could roll into town without booking ahead, and 24 hour hostel options would be everywhere, no matter what city.  Not here.  There were no info booths open, no Internet around.  The modern world assumes that travelers have their guidebooks and smart phones, that we pre-plan and are connected.  I walked around the hood, trying to suss out a cheap yet not skeevy hotel or a hostel.  Nothing seemed affordable.  I jumped back in the Metro and found my way to Buenos Aires, remembering that was near the hostel. Why didn’t I at least write down the address?  All I needed was the address.  Even if they filled their beds, they’d still be able direct me to another hostel.

12am, wandering on Buenos Aires, I was glad to be there.  It was a wide shopping boulevard filled with tourists and locals, strolling on a Saturday evening, bright lights illuminating familiar international and European brands.  But no hostel in sight.  at 12:30, the subway line was closed, so I kept wandering around, trying to blindly choose which hotel I’d plop into, sacrificing money I didn’t plan to spend.  I wasn’t upset or panicked, because the spa made me so relaxed and elated.  I felt like I was floating around the city, curiously searching. Maybe I could stay up until the next train at 5am?  I’d just have to keep killing time. But then I was incredibly exhausted, dragging my feet.

And there it was, I had made my way back to Central Station.  I saw “Mini Hotel Aosta” and thought, I’m either sleeping here or on the floor of the train station.  Even though they did clean it up, that wasn’t how I planned to spend my night.  I walked in, weary and exhausted and said “Buona Sera” to the man who greeted me.  “Do you have any rooms?” He nodded.  “How much?”

“90 euros.”

Some hotels could be up to 200 bucks, especially by the train station.  Fine, good enough.  Sleep!  “Ok” I nodded.  As he checked me in, he said, “If you have time in the morning, there is breakfast on the 8th floor until 10am.”

“Oh, definitely!” I said.  Hey, that knocks 10 euros or so off the price.  Now, sleep.

I went to the room and noticed light was streaming in from the bottom of the shutters, so I pressed the button that drew the metal closed tightly.  I didn’t see an alarm anywhere, couldn’t get the tv to work, and was so exhausted, I stripped and went to bed.  I grabbed a book that only made it into the bed with me.  Never opened.  Then it fell to the floor with a loud THUD sometime in the middle of the night.

I woke up to a loud KNOCK.  It was pitch black, and I figured it was a hotel guest knocking on the wrong door.  I said, “Yes?” and they walked away.

I stayed in my slumber a bit longer, then had a suspicious feeling.  Eventually, I turned the lights on and glanced at my watch.  10:15.  No!

I opened the blinds, and realized there was a bright, sunshine-filled day outside.  My room faced the train station.  But I was too late for breakfast.  I threw clothes on, splashed my face, and dashed into the elevator, pressing 8.  But it would not illuminate.  Apparently, they don’t let you up if it’s not breakfast time.  So I missed out on all the food, the view of the train station from the 8th floor, and a relaxing treat before my departure.

View of the train station from my room.

Oh well.  I checked out in a hurry, and dashed to the ticket line where I grabbed a seat to Genova.  Why is it not departing until 12:45?  Oh well, I’ll kill time.  I wandered around the area, searching for an open restaurant. On a sleepy Sunday, even Milan was not awake yet at 11am.  Hungry, I grabbed McDonald’s– I know, I know!

Then I sauntered back to the station and saw my train wasn’t on the schedule.  Wait, what?  Oh crap, in my groggy haze, I had misread my ticket.  My train ARRIVED in Genoa at 12:45.  It departed at 11:10 . . . oh so long ago.  Back to the ticket line, where I explained my sitatuation. They said it was too late for a refund, but because they felt bad, they gave me the money back and booked me on the next train, which ended up being 8 euros cheaper.

Finally, onto the train.  And as it pulled out of the station, I realized I left my book on the floor in the hotel! As we picked up speed, I figured I’d return the next week with a nice excuse for another spa weekend.

I did return.  I made sure my phone was fully charged, and I got to the city early enough that I was ready to take the train home at 8:10pm.   At the spa, I explored new areas, including a tram car outside that had been turned into a sauna!  The food was just as delicious as before, yet more crowded as I was there when they started happy hour.  I also tried out the “Fire” relaxation room, where I napped on a giant squishy beanbag before a nice fire.  After, I tried the “Water” relaxation room, where I floated on a water bed.   After another blissful experience, I didn’t want to ruin it.  I made it to my train on time and had the cabin all to myself, reading a book for school as the train glided me home.  Home to Genoa.  I live here.

Milano Centrale Stazione

Farewell to Milan on my way back home to Genoa.

Milan, my New New York

One of the best things about living abroad is the freedom for weekend adventure.  Having been to Italy several times already, it’s usually one of two things: chilling in one spot, or bouncing around tourist sites at a frenzied pace. Living here allows me to soak in the culture as well as the sea, let the beautiful language wash over me as I try to grasp it, and stare at a map and train schedule each weekend, imagining the possibilities.  I don’t have to just worry about the greatest hits.  I can pick random locations and explore.

This Saturday, I slept in and chilled for half the day after a busy yet good workweek.  I thought about staying in town, but I got that travel itch, where I knew I would not be content to stay in one place.  I also feel most homesick on Saturday mornings, when I have time to think and chill.  Saturday mornings, I usually spend with family, or if I’m in the city, I just had a great night and am probably just relaxing before going out again or to NJ for dinner.  I knew it was time to explore.  Originally, I was planning on hitting Florence to buy some leather products.  Though Liguria is not that far away, there is just not the selection or value in leather goods as I’d see in Florence.  I’d like a purse and a couple of other items.  Also, Florence has a magical beauty, especially when it is not peak tourist season.  Yet, by the time I got myself up and going, there was not enough time for the 3.5 hour train ride each way.

I thought about Torino, but in my laziness, even that option waned.  Ahh, Vernazza called me, the quintessential town in the Cinque Terre.  I saw touristy Monterosso last week, gorgeous with its beach, but I wanted to see something a bit more laid back and charming.  But for some reason, Milan kept calling to me.  Only 1.5 hours from the city center, I could arrive in Milan at 5:30 and still enjoy the evening before heading back.  See, all I wanted to do was gaze at scenery from a train window, to feel like I’m going somewhere, to nap in motion and wake up somewhere else with Exploration as the only item on the agenda.  I planned to stroll, window shop, take some photos, and head back.

When I lived in Oxfordshire, England — the beautiful countryside of the Cottswolds, I frequently went to London for weekend trips, and sometimes an evening event.  It was about the same distance away, door to door, and it quenched my homesickness a bit, with its cosmopolitan flair.  Milan is my new London, my new New York.

I’m surprised I was gravitating to Milan already.  I popped into Milan many times before, usually in transit on a plane or train.  But the city seemed soulless, frenzied, and boring.  Waiting for hours, stuck at the train station because a train was “ritardo” didn’t help my feelings.  But .  . . things change.  They gave the once sooty and seedy train station a face lift.  Where bums used to nap, there is now a Sephora, Geox, and a chain of shops.  Grimy platform signs are replaced by panels.  The ticket area, bright and welcoming, even though the lines are still long.  The marble, polished, the ceiling restored, and the station once again seems like a glamorous welcome to a fashionable city.

Milan is glamorous.  I finally went underground to the metro, my key to the rest of the city and noticed how clean it was compared to the NYC subway, how the design of the cars was open, so you could easily walk from one end to the other.  I looked at the hair, makeup, clothing and shoes people wore, and I was clearly not in Genoa anymore.  The vague familiarity, the hint of New York soothed me.   I was alone, yet unlike my travels in Tokyo, it was not an isolated Lost in Translation feeling.  It was a content to be here, observing like a camera.  “I am a Camera,” just like the Christopher Isherwood book of the same title.

I was finally going to a new part of the city.  As I googled what to do in Milan on my iphone, I saw a very interesting article from . . . TIME OUT NEW YORK, of all places.  They recommended the spa TERMEMILANO, explaining the location and services.  Woah, for just over 30 euros, I could go to a spa for hours and soak in therepeutic and relaxing thermal waters.  Just what I needed.  On my way to the spa, I was on a line that stopped at the Duomo.  The Duomo is perhaps the one iconic image of Milan, other than a catwalk, of course.  I had seen it in travel brochures and in the National Geographic Traveler magazine, which did a spread on Milan last summer, almost changing my mind about my decision never to visit.  Since I had a day pass (for only 5 euros, what a bargain), I could use the metro as much as I wished.  I popped out at the Duomo for a quick photo and to check out the scene.

As I walked up the steps, there it was, bathed in the golden sublime late afternoon light, the kind of light photographers seek for swimsuit photo shoots, the kind of light that puts a natural filter of oooh on everything with a splash of ahh.  After all my years of travels, after all the churches and castles, mountains and oceans  . . . I was so surprised by this sight that I felt giddy.  I saw the spires peaking out from atop the subway and I bounded up the rest of the steps like a child thinking in my head, “Yes, yes, yes!”  A surprise moment of sublime.  This is why I’m here, why I travel.

Peaking above the Metro

Tourists in awe

Yes, Yes, Yes!

I snapped photos, but I made sure to just watch.  To absorb this moment and to just be here.  To carpe diem.  So many times in life, I experience special events through a camera lens or distracted by tweeting or instragramming.  I was zen for a bit.

Then I hit up instagram . . . because, I’m not really alone as I bound around Europe.  Social Networking sights have allowed me to stretch the heartstrings of close friendships and acquaintances across the globe.  In a way, I was able to bring folks with me, sharing in that sublime moment of joy, unaffected by distance and time differences.

I wandered around the area, amazed by the chic architecture and design of the shops, the magical allure.  Part of me wished I was living in this city, but I reminded myself why I came to Genoa, why I chose somewhere so beautiful and so different from NYC  – – for the exact reason that it wasn’t NYC, for the same reason why I chose the Cottswolds instead of a uni in London.  At the same time, it’s nice to know I have this, too.

Eventually, back to the metro after a brioche marmelatta (croissant with marmalade — I don’t know why it’s called another French word here).  I got out at Porta Romana, checked my iPhone for the map location and wondered how I traveled all those years without this handy device, and found the spa in minutes.

I LOVE European spa culture.  I crave it at home, try to recreate it, but it’s never the same. And also, except for Saratoga’s iron rich baths, there aren’t really springs around.  Here, they have hot springs filled with all kinds of fizzy good stuff.  I went in, tried to navigate the language barrier and eventually had to ask for help.  It was a chic oasis of calm and glamour.  In minutes, I was in the locker room, changing into my swimsuit (Oh, no nudity issues as in Germany, which I kind of liked but it takes a while to get that free).  Then into a soft robe where I went searching for spas and services.  I paid about 40 euros for everything included including light fare.

I walked into that light fare on my way to the pools.  Tables and tables of snacks: celery, yogurt, cereal, nutella, jams, fruits and veggies, juices, herbal tea infusions, and . . . even wine and champagne!  WOAH!  I snacked and sipped a bit, and felt so absolutely elated that I worried I might have seriously died.  Nobody is allowed to experience this much bliss, right?  Then I went outside.  The late summer evening air was turning cool, yet I dipped my toes into the warm bubbly spa water and sank into peaceful ahh.  The stars winked at me in the inky night sky.  Here I was in central Milan, in this bubbly oasis, surrounded by friends and couples having their weekend aperitivo.  Again, not jealous, not lost, just enjoying.

I went back in and saw they had added even more snacks, skewers with mozzarella and roasted red peppers, hummus dips, bruschetta, foccaccia, and all kinds of little snacks to delight.  I nibbled a bit more before heading downstairs to the “Wellness Course,” so similar to what I had seen in German spas. Hot tubs, cold plunge pools, hot saunas, steamy hammams, fizzy water benches, footbaths and bicarbonate scrubs, and even a table where you lie down under a gentle shower that changes temperatures gradually from warm to cold to very warm.

Here in the spa on a Saturday night, I couldn’t ignore the slight pang of loneliness where I saw the fit, happy couples smooching in the pools.  Would I meet a guy here in Italy?  Do I even want to? And I started to feel the distance, watching the girls all model fit in their bikinis and super happy, many of them in groups for a girls’ night out, laughing and joking.  I wished my girls were with me.  Later, I saw groups of friends on the metro for a night out in the city, the Milan versions of me and my girls . . . and I felt another pang.  I felt like Carrie when she was in Paris with Alexandr Petrovsky, watching a group of friends chat in a cafe, lonely outside the window.  Carrie painfully missed her girls in New York and knew she couldn’t stay in Paris  (Sex and the City of course).  Such a unique pendulum swing from pure elation to heartache at what I have left behind.  I knew at that moment that I couldn’t be dead because pure heavenly bliss would be having it all, not missing a thing.

More on Milan later . . . this post is getting quite long.  🙂

More Kefi, Please.

It’s amazing how the mind, body, and spirit will kind of shut down in an attempt to tell you what you are doing with your life is all wrong.  I remember moments in the last few years where I didn’t want to leave the couch, where I woke up in the morning, one after the other, feeling like it was Groundhog Day.  Where I looked around me and thought, “This is it?  This can’t be it . . .”

I thought back to the old me, the 21 year old adventurer, slightly scatterbrained, super creative, very philosophical, and a dreamer open to the world.  Ok, I overstuffed my backpack and on a train, hostlers said, “Do you have a kayak in there?” And I made many other mistakes along the way during my travels: missed trains, missed flights, hitchhiking with bus drivers,  medicines left at home, and lots of lost rambling.  But somewhere within all of that, there was adventure.  My mind was ripped open and challenged — like lifting weights for the brain and spirit.  I dunno, something about the soul too.

I did it for this girl, the 52 year old me, and of course, my current self.

I missed that girl.  When many people lose that side of themselves, they blame age.  I knew better.  I am gonna quote two travel chick flicks because, well, as cheesy as they may be, they are also right on about a few things.  And since I’m a woman who up and left her life, shook it to the core for a chance at something new — they resonate with me.

In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances is offered an opportunity to go to Italy.  Under the cloak of depression after a divorce, she says “Thanks but no thanks.”  Her friend says:

“You know when you come across those empty shell people? And you think, what the hell happened to you? Well, there came a time in each one of those lives, where they are standing at a cross-roads, someplace where they had to decide to turn left or right. This is no time to be a chicken-shit Francis.”

Frances, a writer, laughs at the Oprah cliche of the statement, yet at the same time, she ends up taking the advice and quoting it back to her friend after she buys a villa in Tuscany.   She was comfortable in her misery at home.  It would be so easy, so comfortable for me to stay in New York.  When I got the job offer, I almost said “No.”  Yeah, no to Italy, to my dream.  Then I realized all the excuses in my head were purely fear talking.  And I had to logically rise above the fear, reach for a dream, even when I didn’t think I had any, and take the LEAP.  If I stayed, I envisioned withering.   The negativity in my work environment was killing me, kind of literally.  Parts of myself had already disappeared.  I used to laugh easily.  I used to seek fun.   I didn’t feel witty or creative anymore.  When I looked up at the clouds, all I saw were . . .well, clouds.  But in the past, I used to see shapes and figures, dancing in their imaginary yet oh so real to me sky world.  Puff the Magic Dragon, a dolphin jumping up into the air, two teddy bears hugging, the Michelin Man.  But nope, I just saw clouds.  I’d go to write, and  . . .BLOCKED.  My whole life was in survival mode.  Get through the day, calm down, don’t let the chaos get to you.

The positivity here is amazing.  I am so appreciated, even revered at times — I feel.  And in addition to always asking “Are you happy?” coworkers are always thanking us for our work, praising our efforts, and providing support for our goals as well as  invitations for drinks. It’s amazing.  Plus, the beauty of Genoa and the proximity to so many fabulous destinations is — just perfecto.

I miss friends and family at home.  I miss the variety of NYC food and entertainment. But overall, I am absolutely elated to be here.  From the minute I said “Yes,” my spirit started to return.  I started seeing shapes in the clouds, laughed through life, started writing again, started dreaming and living in the moment.  “I saved my soul,” I said to one of my best friends before departure.  There is nothing to regret.

In My Life in Ruins, a woman moves to Greece for a teaching job at the university, yet with budget cuts she lost it and became a travel guide.  She is about to go back to the US when she realizes, she can get her kefi back — her mojo.  It comes out in full force, of course, and she stays in Athens, elated and glowing.

I’m not saying I’m going to stay forever, but it is thrilling to know I have two years here — two years to continue growing, trying new things, and cultivating my mind, body and spirit.  A friend said, “seeds as well as tilling” — planting the future me.

I just got back from a sunset swim in the sea, one of my favorite rituals here in Genoa as I’ve begun to seek new comforts.  I don’t have cable tv.  I open my terrace door and breathe the mountain air.  The salty water drips from my hair down my neck.  I am filled with gratitude and peace on this late summer Sunday.

Salty Cats Day – Cuteness overload.

Our school’s mascot is the Salty Cat.  My heart already started to melt upon this discovery.  And it gets sweeter.

Last Friday, September 6, concluded the first week of school.  Instead of periods 1-2, we met in the gym for a special “Salty Cats” assembly.  Students in grades 1 through 12 filled the auditorium along with the teachers.  Students returned to their respective houses from last year: The Yellow Sea Lions, the Red Dragons, the Blue Sharks, and the Green Leprechauns.  Each house beneath a Harry Potter style crest, had students aged 6-18 as well as teachers in a cute, energetic cluster of aw.

New teachers and students sat in the middle of the auditorium behind the grand trophy, Italian ribbons dangling in glory.  Last year, the Yellow Sea Lions won.  Who would win this June?

We eagerly awaited placement in our respective houses.  The new PE teacher dramatically called students’ names, and the entire auditorium roared as each was warmly welcomed by new teammates.  Then it was time for the teachers.  Folks, I am now a RED DRAGON.  Woo!

For our first activity, seniors helped line all students up in age order, from first through 12th.  I had to resist yanking out my iphone to instagram the cuteness (can’t photograph the kids without permission of course, but oh did I want to).  It was like watching children grow up, from the tiny cherubs to the fun, college-bound, near adults in the back.

“Take off one shoe,” called the head of years.  Soon, there was a pile of shoes, from tiny to enormous, dainty sandals to colorful converse.  Next, pairs of students had to run to the pile and help each other put on their shoes before running back.  Everyone had misunderstood directions, thinking that you HAD to help the other one put their shoe on instead of doing it yourself, so we eventually had 11th graders putting each other’s shoes on.  Hilarious.  Also hilarious, watching a frantic 6 year old struggle with velcro while his friend tried to jam his foot into a tightly laced sneaker.  With a sweet spot for the little ones (I do teach kids swim lessons all summer) I adored this opportunity to help.

And, for our first Salty Cats activity of the 2012-2013 school year, RED DRAGONS came in first place!  Woo.  Now, once a month, students have Salty Cats day, where they compete in various activities, often sports.  Teachers can participate as well.  They can also win points for their house by good deeds and behavior, etc.  What an exciting way to unite the school, especially when 6 year old jumps up to give a senior a high five.

I love it here.  All the little kids, the mascot, the energy, the giggles, the everything — warmed my heart like the Ligurian Sun.  I am always glowing.

“Happy First Day of School!”

This is culture shock, in the best possible way.  Yesterday was the first day of school with students, the day we anticipated in a week of meetings always focused and thinking about our kids. There was a lot of apologizing for being “under-resourced” and having a chaotic start, but in my teaching career, we had more resources here in Genoa on Day 1 than I ever had and less chaos than a mid January day.

“Happy First Day of School!” said the ever enthusiastic high school coordinator as she darted up the stairs.  “Happy First Day of School!” she continued to every staff member, much like we’d say “Happy New Year!”  or “Merry Christmas!”  Excitement charged the air; instead of the gloomy dread that I’ve seen so often at this time, where teachers as well as students mourn the death of summer, there was an air of anticipation, like that of Christmas morning: our presents, the kids.  And I absolutely could not wait to meet them after  being told over and over: “You will love them.”

International Schools are a special treat.  I really belong within this type of community, and I especially love how there are ages 3-18 in the same building. The little ones, so cute in their brightly-colored bookbags filled with fresh notebooks, pencil cases, and dreams.  Many of my seniors came here for pre-school and were nurtured all the way up to college-bound young adulthood.  Teachers and students filed into the window-lined gymnasium, views of hills and the palm and pine tree-laden grounds.  Pre-K through seniors were lined up in neat rows, hugging their friends after a fun summer away.  Parents climbed up to the balcony of the gym, snapping photos and taking videos on their cell phones.  Eventually, the balcony filled so they spilled around the edges of the gymnasium, squeezing tighter and tighter.  Almost our whole community together, enthusiastic voices blending over each other to create the white noise of a soccer stadium.

Then the director’s hand went up in the universal “Give me 5” request for silence.  2-3 seconds later, the entire room was hushed, all eyes on him.  He welcomed everyone, introduced new teachers, and soon it was off to homeroom.  Each secondary staff member is assigned 6 students to meet with every morning.  The homerooms are all together in the same room with 2-3 other teachers where they can share the news of the day,  handouts, and develop a mentoring relationship.  I have a group of 11th graders, and I instantly fell in love with them.  They were sweet, fun, focused, and eager to learn about their first year in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program.

Next, a 15 minute break for snack, where students have several choices to go throughout the campus before their next class.  We missed periods 1-2 today due to the assembly and extended homeroom.  Our school uses block scheduling, so most academic classes meet for 2 consecutive 40 minute blocks on a rotating schedule.  I did not get to see my Grade 12 IB English seniors.  But I did get to meet my Grade 11 IB English seniors next.  There were 11, and we had great conversations as we got to know each other.  And . . . yea, 11, not 34!  I can’t get over that.  When I needed everyone’s attention, I just had to give students a look and raise my hand or a gentle reminder to focus.  That was my management.  The rest was focus on academics and enjoy my students.  With so few students in my classes, of course I’m going to be expected to give them a lot of attention, to know them extremely well, and to provide a lot of nurturing and support.  I’ve always wanted to do this, but felt completely spread thin by the number of students I had and the jam-packed classes.  This class was smaller than the class I teach at the college at home.   And the students were just as eager to participate and focused on academics.  Wow, wow, wow.

From college-focused and inquisitive Grade 11 straight to fresh from middle school and ultra adorable Grade 9.  They brought in energy, enthusiasm, and a playful outlook on life, eager to begin the school year and reform from their “disruptive” ways in 7th grade.  Welcome, my cherubs!

Whew, 4 40 minute blocks later, I was done with classes for the day. It was lunch time, and I had packed a lunch so I would not have to worry this first day.  Off to my office (yeah, I have an office), where I sat down with my Humanities Mates, chatting about the day, our students, and getting excited for the year.  As I ate my tuna sandwich, I gazed out the window towards the villa next door illuminated by that Ligurian Sun and felt sublime.  There were signs all around me that I belong here.  It was always meant to happen, and everything that happened in my life before led me to this moment, to my capability to take this leap and to appreciate and relish every moment of it.

At the end of the day, a new science teacher popped by the room, beaming.  Having previously taught in inner-city London, he asked knowingly, “How did it go?”  I looked at my office mate, another new teacher who worked in inner-city Boston.  We both returned the beaming smile as I said, “Great! How about you?”

“It went swimmingly!”

Are we dreaming?

I have a lot of work ahead of me.  I’m teaching 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12th grade English.  Junior and Senior English is the IB program, with rigorous standards and assessment.  I’ll be teaching yoga after school 2 days a week.  I was asked to help chaperone the model UN club and escort students on the International Trips (Jordan, Netherlands, and Greece).  I will be taking conversational Italian lessons on Tuesdays.  I have lots of friends and family coming to visit.  I still need to figure out how to set up my wireless Internet and where to buy an affordable pair of pumps.  (You can’t walk around Italy in frumpy shoes, oh no way . . . I’ve been watching).  But I am doing what I love.  I am appreciated and supported.  The IB coordinator keeps saying, “Have we told you how happy we are that you are here?  We are just thrilled to pieces that you are here.  Why did we have to wait so long to get you?”

My director said, “I am so happy to have you. We are so lucky we got you.  I blindly trust you with everything.  I know you will be great.”

And today at the end of class, an 8th grader said to me, “Thank you for the lesson.”