This past week has been full of highs and lows. Altalena is the Italian word for seesaw and this pretty much describes it. The only job offer I received, after another full week of searching, was to take care of two elderly women. This didn’t sound bad on the surface until Caterina explained to me that it would involve changing diapers for the two bed-ridden women in their nineties. In her exact and blunt words, when I wasn’t fully comprehending, “caca and pee pee.” I did contemplate the job for a whole day because I really do need to find something, but I just couldn’t find the intestinal fortitude to handle all the nursing requirements that the women needed. As I was giving my answer to the signora, Caterina and Antonella were both behind her urging me in with energetic gestures, not to say yes. I’d already reached that conclusion on my own, but their confirmation made me feel a little better. As I was relaying the results, or rather lack of results, with finding a job here to my new friends, I began to cry. Just a few tears mind you, not a full breakdown. I think this was just the culmination of weeks of frustration, which was not aided by the fact that the Italians aren’t much for words of commiseration. Other than a “Si, È difficile,” or “it’s difficult,” normally my job hunt stories end with my friends agreeing that everything is pretty hopeless. All you want to hear is that yes, of course you’ll find something, but that isn’t the way it works here. Optimism is not part of this culture and I sometimes feel like a freak of nature with my “rah-rah” attitude.
For me shedding tears every now and again is not unusual, but my new Italian friends didn’t know what to do with me, and stood around looking uncomfortable. I felt like I was in a movie: “Crying? There’s no crying in Italy.” Then I heard, “Sta scerlando!” Another new word for me, which basically means she’s losing it. In the street, no less. It was definitely mortifying, but it’s best the Italians know that I’m a crier early on!
Not ten minutes after this, while I’m puffy-eyed but feeling a bit better, Caterina introduced me to an American who has been living here for fifteen years with his Italian wife. He is from New York. After only a few minutes of talking with Robert not only did I feel better, but I felt determined. He relayed his own work difficulties when he’d arrived here and didn’t try to sugarcoat it. But he did leave me with the impression that I will find something. Eventually. This was all I needed. We brainstormed work ideas which were “out of the box” including my baking dolce Americana since my baked goods are always well-received. Robert especially liked this idea since he is not fond of the Tuscan pastry. I promised him an apple pie for his help. He introduced me to three of his friends while we were talking, and handed each of them my cards, introducing me as his friend. It was very sweet. I hadn’t realized how much I’d needed just to chat with an American here. It’s been two months and although I’ve been speaking in English to friends and family in the U.S., I haven’t had anyone who understands what it means to be a newcomer in this country. Having a full conversation in English, and hearing the pragmatism of a New Yorker was just what I needed.
As it turned out, it was my day for speaking English. I was in Caterina’s store while a group of tourists my parents age came in and were stocking up on cheese. They didn’t know that it was okay to bring back pecorino in their suitcase, so I showed them which cheeses they could take back to South Carolina, and helped Caterina ring up a humongous sale. As the comedian of the quartet said, “We’re doing Tuscany on 1000 euro a day.”
My next encounter with Americans came in the afternoon. It had been widely reported by the butcher, Silvano, that an American family with five kids was moving in to a palazzo across from Antonella’s store. The family had in fact moved in a few days prior to my meeting them, and are staying here for two years. Bonnie and Mark are from Colorado and this is the second time they have picked up roots and tried a new place. Of the five kids, three are triplet boys aged four, a girl who is six and the eldest a boy, eight. Bonnie looked remarkably unfrazzled for someone with her hands full to overflowing. None of them speak Italian, but everyone is getting enrolled for Italian lessons and the younger kids are already the darlings of the street–blond, energetic sweethearts that charmed Caterina and Antonella from minute one. The older ladies of the street don’t seem quite as enamored of this vocal tribe.
I shared some of what I’ve learned by trial and error over the past couple of months with Bonnie and Mark, and Bonnie and I are getting together next week for a chat after the kids are asleep. In the beginning when I moved here, I was adamant that I would only speak Italian and that I wasn’t going to hang out with expats. But I’ve realized that sometimes you just need to speak to someone in your native language. I really did try to explain PMS to Caterina and Antonella, but it just doesn’t translate!
The highs and lows of my altalena continued with a gift of a bottle of wine left for me by some guy I’d chatted with at my coffee bar for two minutes, which was sweet. Then I had a lesson with Alberto and he made a phone call on my behalf about work, which felt like a step in the right direction. The next day Giuseppe, one of my new pals, gave me some translations to do for his store. A tiny amount of work, but I’m grateful. Unfortunately the excitement of these highs was overshadowed a bit by some stalker-like text messages I’m receiving from someone who obviously got my number off one of my flyers for English lessons. The hazard of living in a small town with only two degrees of separation is now abundantly clear.
But this morning, this same two degrees of separation worked to my advantage when I met a lawyer who owns a nearby vineyard, agriturismo and wine shop. He is a regular customer at the bar, and Massimo and Angela had told him about me. I stopped in this morning for a coffee and he was there. We chatted for a good while and he seems keen to help me find some work. Cinder approved right away as he tossed her a chunk of his panini. Angela chimed in to the conversation whenever I got stuck with my Italian and I was grateful for her help. He’s going to call me on Tuesday morning and we will have a proper chat about job possibilities. Angela and I did a happy dance after he left and I returned home feeling much better. So while the week was one of highs and lows, thankfully it ended on a high… and it’s always exhilarating to be at the top of the see-saw!