Thursday, February 14, 2013

Life and death in a small village in the Italian Alps

This morning was beautiful.  Now that we are halfway through February, the sun climbs above the mountains by 9:30 in the morning, and the sky was clear and blue.  After playing inside for a while, Tadpole, Turtle, and I bundled up and walked across the plaza and into the heart of the village to the panetteria to get our typical mid-morning snack of focaccia from the local baker.  Tadpole is completely addicted to this focaccia - I have to remember to go buy a few slices the morning we leave so she can eat them on the plane.

My father-in-law joined us on our walk, and we rounded the corner and headed up to the ancient stone church to fulfill Turtle's regular request to see the bell tower.  We walked hand-in-hand up the cobblestone streets, pausing in one lane to greet a 3-year-old friend on her way to preschool with her grandmother.  Near the top of the hill, a thin coating of ice and snow still covered the street, leftover from the storm we had on Monday.

We turned left and made the final ascent to the church, which is tucked inside the stone wall of the town, very near the highest point in town.  We admired the bell tower, checked out the thick ice sculptures created by the rushing water of the fountain, and exclaimed over the length of the icicles hanging from the walls of the fort (they were impressively long).  Since we were there at 10:30, we thought there was no chance to hear the bells ring for at least a half hour, but it turned out we were wrong.  An ancient woman was making her way to the church, and told my father-in-law, in the local dialect, that she was on her way to have the bells ring to signify the birth of a new child in town.

The bells of the church here have three different chimes that signify the passing of time, in cycles both small and large.  The small cycle is the hourly one - the bells chime out the hours around the clock, and also toll for a while at 7am (I'm not sure if this is a call to services ...).  Then there is a certain type of ring for births, and another for deaths, tolling the cycles of time on the scale of a human life.  This town has a retirement home, which has residents from all over the valley, particularly from the upper valley which has towns much less populated and no resources for the very ancient.  And many of the young people have left this place to look for work and opportunities for their families, so the average age here, I suspect, is quite high.

Since we've arrived, two months ago, there have been at least 5 or 6 funerals, and probably more that I wasn't aware of.  One of the funerals was for the mother of the baker whose bakery we visited this morning, as we do most mornings.  I often don't know the people who pass away while we are here, or I know of them only because I know some distant relative who is a friend or relative of my husband.  I didn't go to the funeral, but I happened to come upon the funeral procession as I was coming home from one of my regular walks in the mountains above the town.

Funerals here are very different from anything I've experienced in the US, although I know that part of it is because this is a small town and everyone knows everyone else.  Since this woman was one of the people who run the town bakery, she was very well known, and people came from all over for her funeral.  I'm not sure I've ever seen such a big gathering of people in this town before.  After the funeral, which is held at the town church we walked to this morning, the people form a procession and accompany the hearse down to the cemetery, which is located at one of the lowest points in town, not far from the river that snakes along the bottom of this valley.  There was a policewoman who stopped traffic on the main state road between Italy and France, and the bells of the church tolled.

At the time (this was a couple weeks ago), I thought about how perhaps in some ways this ceremony could make death less scary and easier to accept.  To know that at the end of your life, everyone you knew would show up for your funeral and accompany you through your hometown to your final resting place, within the walls of the place you thought of as home for most of your life, and to know you would remain there, most likely with all the people you knew in life - somehow it made death feel less lonely to me.

And then today, I realized that the same woman probably had those very same church bells ring when she was born some 70 years ago.  That those bells rang for my husband when he was born, and I think also for my children (thanks to my mother-in-law) when they were born two and a half years ago.  I thought about how I have nothing like that - no ties to any place on earth.  My mom is from Pennsylvania, my dad from Kentucky, and I don't even know if their parents were from the same towns they were from.  I grew up in one town in California, then we moved to another, and then I went to two different universities and have never felt connected to anyplace.  What an amazing thing to have an entire community so tied together, to be a part of something bigger than yourself, but still human in scale.

I am not completely ignorant, though.  I know that there are down sides to living in a town like this, and I've experienced them this winter.  It can be lonely here, and the winters are cold and dark.  There is little work to be found here, and people are leaving, the population is gradually dwindling.  The shops and cafes and restaurants are closing, there are very few left, and as a result, there is not much to do here.

But hearing the church bells ring, today for a birth, several times over the last few months for deaths, helped me realize that there is something here worth having, as well.  Seeing my children surrounded by a huge extended family that dotes on them, hearing the entire town greet them by name when they are downstairs in my in-laws' shop, makes me wonder if we are giving up something that is more valuable than we are gaining, when we leave our families and our hometowns in the name of opportunity and independence.  It's hard for me to say, really, not having grown up in a place like this.  Still, I think it's some good food for thought.

(P.S. I'm sorry I don't have pictures, if I can I'll try to add some later.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

in translation

Thanks for the comments on insomnia.  Yesterday I slept until sometime between 6 and 6:30, then I napped from 3-5, and could barely keep my eyes open after 11pm.  Now I'm up at 5:30 again.  I think I need to get on a better sleep schedule that involves going to bed early, but that's not going to happen while we're still in Italy, I suspect.  We have less than 2 weeks here, and when we get back, I'll have a fresh start to try to re-establish good sleep habits.

I'm really longing to go home.  I love it here, but staying as a guest with two 2-year-olds for 2 months, no matter how awesome your hosts are, can just get old.

Having twins is a really interesting experience.  When they both want something (usually what they want is me), it can be really hard.  When they play with each other, it's really awesome.  When they chatter away and say the funniest things to each other, it's even better.  When they join forces make trouble and create messes, well ... those are the days I wish I only had one at a time.

As just about everyone knows, 2-year-olds say amazingly funny things.  And they make a lot of funny grammatical mistakes, most of which in my case don't translate into English so I don't have much to share.  They also tend to imitate what they hear around them.  Since my in-laws own a shop here in Italy, the kids witness a lot of typical village interaction, and they often spontaneously say things like "Ciao, ci vediamo! (Bye, see you later!)" or "Buona giornata! (Have a nice day!)"

Here's a little conversation I just overheard my kids say (in Italian, with translation below):

Tadpole: Oh!  Sono caduta io.
Turtle: Sei caduta!  Ti aiuto.
Tadpole: Mi sono fatta male.
Turtle: Ti do un bacino. Muah muah.

Tadpole: Oh! I fell down.
Turtle: You fell! I'll help you.
Tadpole: I hurt myself.
Turtle: I'll give you a kiss. Mwah mwah.

These sorts of things, well ... they just melt my heart.  And make me realize I'm so very lucky indeed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013


I know I have written in the past about my struggles with insomnia.  Unfortunately, after a nice period of not having it, it is back for a visit.  The last two weeks have been terrible.  I have lost track of the number of times I am up at 5am for no reason at all, unable to sleep.

This week, we have guests visiting us here in Piemonte.  Today is going to be super busy, with lunch up in a snowed-in hamlet in the mountains accessible only by walking, skiing, or snowmobile, followed by dinner in a fancy restaurant in a small stone town that is a 15-minute drive further up the valley than we are here.  I'm starting to get worried that I will be falling asleep at the table.  It's much worse when the language we'll be using is not my native language as well, because while I would now consider myself fluent in Italian, to be able to participate in a lively conversation I really need to be alert.

The worst thing about insomnia, and the thing that I think is hardest to understand for those who have never experienced it, is the fact that I am actually really really tired right now.  It's not like I've had enough sleep and I woke up because I feel refreshed and lively.  Definitely not.  I would LOVE to sleep another two hours.

I think insomnia is very similar to infertility in the sense that if you have never experienced it, it's very hard to understand what it's like.  My husband is particularly guilty of this, because he has no trouble with sleep whatsoever.  He sleeps on airplanes.  He sleeps in as late as he wants in the morning, with no care for how noisy the house might be, how light the bedroom might be, or what time he went to bed the night before.  He can't understand how I can wake up early and be tired and then not be able to fall back asleep.

I would love some advice, if anyone has it.  I don't ingest caffeine almost ever.  I drink decaf coffee, and rarely in the evening.  I'm wondering if big late dinners are part of the problem, but I'm not feeling indigestion when I wake, and I don't think the nights when I have the biggest latest dinners necessarily coincide with my insomnia.  I know anxiety is probably playing a small role, but for example right now I don't feel particularly anxious.  But I still can't sleep.  Would seeing a doctor help?  I've mentioned it to doctors before and never gotten any satisfying advice or suggestions, but perhaps making an appointment just for sleep issues might be an idea?


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Day after groundhog's day

Almost two months since posting, sorry about that.  The main reason is that we are in Italy, and have been here since December 18th, and I needed every moment of free time in the days leading up to our departure to prepare for our trip - packing, cleaning, buying Christmas gifts for family in America and in Italy, preparing the house for my sister to house-sit, etc.  It was a bit crazy.

I have been busy here.  The kids are now officially 2.5 years old.  It's a bit nuts.  I'm finding myself yearning for another one, although my husband is not on board.  Realistically speaking (and logically speaking), I know there are some definite negatives to having any more, but I can't help wanting it anyway.

Life here has been mostly pretty fun, with the glaring exception of the snow situation.  We spent the first month without snow, in fact it was very warm (we're up in the alps, so it was very strange!).  I gave up on the idea of skiing and started walking or hiking every day that I could.  Then, a couple weeks ago, two big storms came through and dumped about three feet of snow between them, and suddenly the cross country trails were open and I bought a season pass and went about 4 times and was feeling ready to tackle some longer and harder trails.  I felt great, and I was so excited and optimistic about the rest of our stay here.

This past week, we had three days of warm wind, and by the end of the second day, all the snow was gone. The ski season lasted 10 days.  We have 2.5 weeks left to stay here, and although I am happy to stay with friends and family and have the kids absorb more Italian, I am homesick.  Without the possibility of cross country skiing, I am getting ready to go home.  I miss my house, my bed, my shops and stores and errands, the library.  I miss ne.tfl.ix and s.po.ti.fy (which don't work here).  I'm just ... ready.  It's been a long trip.

The great thing is the kids are completely fluent in Italian (as much as a 2.5-year-old can be fluent in any language).  I hope this has given them a great stable base that they won't lose upon our return.  They speak much better than I do now.  They've formed strong attachments to my husband's family, and as far as I can tell, they love being here.  My husband's town is a small stone village surrounded by a fort, mountains, woods, and a nice river nestled in a beautiful Alpine valley.  It is really the place of dreams to spend your childhood, and I'm so grateful that my kids will be able to spend summers and vacations here.  On the other hand, the population is aging and dwindling, so I wonder what it will be like by the time they are old enough to appreciate it.

Time to sign off - I've been sick, and with my husband and in-laws in Torino today for a conference, I'm relying on extended family to help watch the kids while I try to recuperate.  With that in mind, I'm going to crash on the couch with my latest crafty projects, some of which I'll try to post soon after getting back to the US.  Hope all's well in your part of the web.