Introducing myself

What can I tell you about myself? Well, first thing, I was born in northern Illinois, lived there until the age of ten, then moved to southern New Mexico, lived there until the age of almost 20, then through a series of circumstances and a lot of youthful lack of fear, arrived in Bologna, Italy and eventually made it my permanent home.

I was only supposed to stay for the summer, way back in 1987, but I just felt so at home and in love with this little corner of Italy that I sent back my return ticket and stayed on.

When I arrived I had been studying French for two years, not that I was very good at it, but that was enough to give me some basis for learning Italian. My first Italian boyfriend gave me an Italian grammar and language book that was used by the US students who were studying at the Bologna branch of John’s Hopkins University, and so I took that, a little notebook, an English-Italian dictionary and a book in Italian; La Strega Innamorata, and began to learn this wonderful language. I have to admit that I am self-taught, so my spoken Italian is liberally peppered with local dialect and my pronunciation is definitely Anglo-Bolognese. I think that my saving grace is that I am a perfectionist, so I really worked hard on learning the basic grammar until speaking in the “regular” tenses became almost second nature, I worked on my pronunciation as well. My Anglo accent becomes more pronounced when I am tired or upset, and sometimes I will automatically respond to people in the wrong language, but altogether I think that I have done pretty well. Mind you, I wasn’t able to follow and participate in a conversation of more than two people for about a year, that first summer, between the incredible sticky, humid heat and only hearing Italian and trying to understand everything, at the end of the day I would feel as if my head had expanded several feet and I was exhausted from the combination.

My first jobs, which were under the table, had to do with cleaning, first I cleaned a small business, then I was hired to clean a well to do accountant’s home in the hills on the outskirts of Bologna. She was a widow, with a cat, two dogs, a 16 year old son and an older daughter who was living on her own and working as an accountant in her mother’s office. I later worked for the daughter for awhile, while she was pregnant, cleaning her house as well. Then I was able to get my work permission and moved on to a large cleaning company that had personnel in hospitals and local government offices and areas. I worked for about two years with this company, off and on, in the meantime taking typing and computer classes, as well as an accounting class that I understood very little of (maths is not my jam). A friend of my then boyfriend told me that a person he knew was looking for a secretary, so I got my first secretary job and stayed with that company for I think seven years.

I then moved on to secretarial front desk work for a Architectural/Civil Engineering studio for nine years and finally school secretary for a private school in 2007.

I have also had a few translation gigs and worked as a nanny here and there.

I am married to an Italian and we have an Italian teenage son, who will soon be a legal adult. We have our own home and a cat.

I’m 53 years old, have long hair, but I want it to grow so long I can sit on it. Lately I am finding white hairs here and there on my head more and more often and went into menopause without really noticing it. Lucky me, I guess?

I’m a voracious reader, especially of novels. I like eating Asian dishes much more than Italian food (real Italian, not Italo-Americano) and real bbq. Growing up in New Mexico also gave me the gusto for spicy food, I’ve floored Calabresi by my enjoyment of what they called “really hot” sardella sauce and by asking if they had anything spicier for me.

I also knit, sew, crochet and embroider, though not that often, and I have about 400 bottles of nail polish and an inordinate amount of colored pens and bujos. Lots of glitter pens.

I’m not crazy about cleaning the house, especially since everyone else messes it up straight away. I am messy and tend to pile things, especially clothes, all over the place.

The story of how I arrived in Italy – Ancient History

I lived with my family in the countryside near a small town in southern New Mexico from the age of ten to the age of nineteen. Before that we lived in the suburbs near Chicago, until 1976, where we had a front and back yard, trees, grass and lived in a two bedroom house that had been built in the 1920’s. My family moved to New Mexico just before I turned 10, and that was a huge culture shock. Going from a suburban area, with trees and a front and back yard covered in grass to a brown, dry, hot place where the only place with large trees was the town cemetery, well, that was hard to get used to. Also the fact that it seemed like nature was out to get us, thorns, fire ants, sand spurs, rocks, dust devils and sandstorms as well as the baking sun, my family felt out of place. I remember that my brothers and I were running around outside barefoot and wearing shorts on our first Christmas day in our new hometown. According to any records I can find, it was only 60°F or 15°C, so maybe we were just crazy.

As to how I arrived in Italy, when I was in my junior year in high school, the girl who became my best friend/sister from another mother arrived fresh from Pesaro with her parents and two brothers, one just a few years younger than my friend S., who also became a close friend and the other a five-year-old. At the time I was part of a group of outsiders in this tiny border town in southern NM, all of us were from somewhere else and didn’t fit in with the jocks, farmers, cholos, cowboys or any crossbreed of these cliques. We were the school “weirdos” who accepted diversity, who respected the erudite nerdy kids, who loved the arts, participated in band, choir, drama, creative writing and any other not-cool activities we could find. So, of course, these two non-English speaking teens from the other side of the world were more than well-accepted into our group, they brought us new perspectives and we helped them learn English and how to navigate the strange cultures that existed in this small-town high school mid-80’s border town.

After graduation, S. and I enroled at the closest state university and for our second year planned on sharing a dorm room there, but just before school started she and her family were forced to relocate to Italy and they ended up in Bologna.

I straggled on for the school year, I did poorly the first semester and really poorly for my last semester. My dad called me pretty much out of nowhere and we somehow got on the subject of me wanting to go to Italy to visit my friends and he offered to buy me the tickets.

Now, this may not sound like much of an extraordinary offer, but a few things need to be noted about my father and his relationship with the rest of my immediate family. My father was a largely absentee dad, he started working out of state when my younger brother, his third child, was born. Then a fourth child, son number 3 was born, who is also special needs. Anyway, dad was largely absent and generally very forgetful of the fact that a home with four young kids really needs to have money to be able to live. I have memories of my mother crying because she accidentally dropped and wasted one of the last few eggs, of leaving the milk to drink “for the baby” as my mom didn’t have the money to buy any more. Of having the telephone cut off for non-payment, we had it off more than on most of the time, of not being able to afford to go to a doctor or dentist because mom would have had to pay up front and be reimbursed by the insurance later. Of having some ladies from a local charity bring us bags of groceries and my mom crying from a combination of gratitude and shame. He would send enough money to my mom that she would use to pay the overdue bills and buy groceries so everything was more or less normal by the time he pulled up in his rental car or his latest shiny pickup truck. Then he would play Daddy Warbucks with us, buying us those small treats that my mom could never afford, books, day trips, candy or whatever, while talking about how he blew the engine out of yet another truck (I think he went through 2-3 a year), how he was taking flying lessons so that he could buy a plane, how he had purchased a collector’s item car for me and it was sitting in pieces in some garage in Mississippi. His fatal mistake was made in my senior year in high school, our gas had been shut off, so we were without any heating or hot water, and he just showed up without sending money first. He walked into the house with all of us watching tv under afgans, I was sewing something on my prom dress (I made both of my prom dresses) by lamplight, we all looked up and just said “Hi” to him. No joy in seeing him, no “we missed you”s, nothing.

I had never seen my dad as subdued as he was that evening. His systematic neglect of his family had finally been put right under his nose and the result of his actions was that none of us thought he was all that wonderful anymore.

So, as I said, he offered to purchase flights for me through his company, my first flight was from El Paso to Las Angeles, then from LA to Milan and my friend took the train and a bus to pick me up at the airport. We took a bus, a train to Bologna and another bus to her new home in the city centre.

I arrived for what was supposed to be a summer visit in May of 1987, but that intended short visit turned into a life choice. I spoke almost no Italian when I arrived, except for a few random words like chocolate. I had studied basic French at uni, so I had some grasp of Latin-based language structure and I gradually taught myself Italian. It took me over a year before I was able to have a decent conversation with more than one person and to not be completely wiped out from the combination of concentrating on understanding what others were saying and the awful, sticky, humid 24/7 heat.

I did some pretty insanely stupid stuff in that first year, and I thank my lucky stars that nothing more serious than a bruised heart and ego came of any of my stupidity. I also had more fun going to clubs, the beach, riding trains (sometimes without a ticket), visiting cities that I had only dreamed about out in the mesquite.

I started working, at first under the table as a house maid to an accountant and her 16 year-old son, two dogs and a cat. My first official job was cleaning local government offices, then I learned to type and use a computer somewhat so I moved on to being the lone secretary to a representative. After that I worked as a secretary and translator for an architecture and engineering firm, and my current job – going on 14 years! – as a school secretary.

In the meantime, I married and had a son, bought a flat and adopted a very strange but cute cat. Not all in that specific order.

Rambles about work post-lockdown

Almost Fiorentina’s post on her first day physically back at the office post-lockdown got me thinking about my own eventual physical return to my desk. And caused a lot of rambling, I ramble a lot.

I am dreading having to physically return to work, I really am. I work in a school that has children from the age of 3 to 18, and whenever I manage to get up from my desk the little ones often run up to me to hug me around the waist. How can we all live without that spontaneous, sweet joy? I know that we will have to, that I will eventually have to take the crowded bus to get to work in the centre and have little humans coughing in my face and using my telephone to talk to mommy or daddy when they’re unwell (I’ve always disinfected that, at any rate) and showing me where the wobbly tooth is. Yes, we will all have masks, though I can’t imagine getting a three-year-old to wear one in class or in the garden. Hopefully we will all be fumigated upon arrival, for those like me who take public transport and don’t want to bring those germs into a clean school. Hopefully we will have uv lights on at night to kill off whatever had escaped the daily fumigation.

Yes, I miss going to work, the 20 minute bus route from the park near my house to the centre under the two towers, the walk through the mercato di mezzo, through Piazza Maggiore, past the former home of Lucio Dalla, past the buskers, the panhandlers, the guy who waits for someone to stop and play chess with him on the ground. I miss going, but if the children aren’t in the school, it’s just an empty and dusty building and I really would prefer to work from home and be able to go to the toilet without worrying about touching anything.

I have been contacting some families about re-enrolment, and yesterday I cried for ten minutes because yet another family wrote back saying they were remaining in their home country and would not be back.

We all know that life will never be the same again, but knowing that we will not have the closure at the end of the school year that we usually do, being able to say goodbye to children, families and also colleagues who are moving on and won’t be back in September, that is what is really making this change real to me. Saying goodbye is hard sometimes, but it also brings closure. This year we won’t be able to say goodbye, say thank you, give hugs and cheek kisses to parents, hugs to the children, extracting promises to stay in touch, to come and visit if they are ever in town. This all won’t be happening. Whenever I will eventually set foot inside the school again, it will be like a ghost building, a shade of what it was, with the carnevale decorations still up and my own desk like I left it in early March, when it was still winter and staying indoors was cosy.

The school was already empty then, the first week for ski week, the second week for the first rumblings of lock-down. Those were fine, we all thought that it would pass quickly, that we could take a pause and then get on with our lives as usual. Obviously it didn’t and we won’t. I have been working from home for over two months now, and sometimes I have difficulty remembering that normal life hasn’t gone on as normal, that the shops and restaurants are closed, that the piazzas are empty and that we are almost all still in a strange kind of suspended animation.

I think that when I do eventually return to my desk, the psychological toll of *seeing* the changes to my home city will weigh heavier on me than anything else at first. I have been here for over 30 years, I have seen Piazza Maggiore in all weathers, in all conditions, with protesters, with fairs and concerts and students and tourists and pigeons and artists and children and processions and firefighters on ziplines. But now, sooner or later, I will be seeing Piazza Maggiore post-apocalypse. And I don’t know if I will ever be ready for that.

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