Tuesday, March 24, 2020

hello from the other side

um, hi.

we are on the last full day of our 14-day voluntary self-quarantine after returning to the US from Rome. and as we have spent the past two weeks hunkered down without stepping outside, relying on our fantastic friends and family to deliver groceries to us, we have watched the insanity continue to mount around us. it's hard to believe that my post about Lenten observances in Italy was written within this same month, let alone in the same year. like pretty much everybody else i know, our world has been turned upside down by the COVID-19 virus and it's difficult to imagine a time when we didn't know it was coming.

but we didn't. at least, we didn't anticipate how directly it would impact our lives. i remember specifically the day that i first heard the NPR Up First news summary podcast mentioning the outbreak in Wuhan. the podcast was released on January 21, and described "international concern" over this new virus. i listened to it on Friday, January 31 while going out on a solo expedition around Rome while Nick stayed home with the girls on his day off. i had quite an ambitious sightseeing list: first to visit the Catacombs of Priscilla, a burial place used by early Christians in the late second to early fourth century (no photos allowed, but it is incredible -- highly recommend). next i got some pizza al taglio (by the slice) at a little shop and, since the mood of the day was distinctively "treat yoself", i opted to wash it down with a... wait for it... Corona.

i can't remember whether i realized the irony of this at the time.

next, i took a bus over to Villa Torlonia, the estate and grounds built for the Torlonia family in the 19th century. in addition to the main villa, the property includes the whimsical Owl House, which was the main residence of the Prince Giovanni Torlonia until his death in 1938. the family donated the villa to Mussolini in 1925, for which he paid the symbolic rent of 1 lira per year. at one point during his residence, Mussolini hosted Gandhi here, a meeting for which i would have loved to be a fly on the wall. 

the main villa

the ballroom of the main villa

the owl house

owl motifs abound throughout the entire house

the next stop on my list was what had been billed as the closest thing to an American-style thrift store in Rome: Affare Fatto Mercatino Usato, near the Colosseum. prior to this, the only "thrift" stores i had found were more along the lines of vintage consignment. this was a veritable treasure trove.

be still my heart!

i limited myself to these three items that would be easy enough to transport back home:
an adorable decorative Mokapot, an actual travel mug so Nick wouldn't have to carry ceramic
mugs back and forth to his office, and these fat little salt and pepper shakers.
 all for a grand total of €10!

Segway tours will never not be hilarious to me
my next stop was something that's been on my to-do list practically since we arrived in Rome: visit the library! i specifically wanted to check out the children's library in central Rome, near Campo de' Fiori, to see if they had any English books. first of all, look at how perfectly Roman this building is, from the ivy crawling over the balcony to the ape truck parked out front.

lingua straniera - that's what i want! they had a decent selection of books in English,
German, Spanish and French. 

my last stop of the day was to the Galleria Spada, a small collection of art housed in a 16th-century palace, which was bought by Cardinal Spada in 1632. Cardinal Spada then commissioned Borromini to make various improvements to the palace, most famously an optical illusion in the garden in which a gallery lined by columns appears to be more than one hundred feet long with a lifesize sculpture at the far end. in reality, the gallery is only 26 feet long and the sculpture stands two feet high.

the courtyard of the palazzo

Borromini's optical illusion
 leaving the palace, i was greeted by this master of the house who seemed none too pleased with my intrusion.

 then finally, on the way back, i had to stop for gelato. much to my dismay, Frigidarium was closed for the off-season, so i settled for the gelateria across the street. i mean, there's really no such thing as bad gelato.

looking back over these pictures, i am hit with so many feelings at once that it's almost impossible to pick them apart: nostalgia, grief, thankfulness, disbelief, resignation. in a way, i'm glad i didn't know exactly what was coming. remembering that day also means remembering a time when the impact of this virus hadn't hit yet. we knew it was out there and that likely it would spread, but we had no idea that less than a month later, it would be wreaking havoc in northern Italy.

i'm so grateful for the incredible visit we had with Mom and Auntie Kris during the last two weeks in February; just hours after they left Rome, on February 29, the US state department raised the travel advisory for Italy to Level 3 (reconsider travel). i'm so sad for our friends who had already purchased tickets and arranged time off work to visit us this spring.

i'm grateful for the foresight Nick had to already be working on a contingency plan for the girls and i to return to the US, for the seminary faculty who were so understanding of our situation and for the flight we were able to board just shy of 24 hours after learning that all of Italy would be locked down. i'm sad that we had to leave most of our things behind (including my box of nonperishable food and supplies of toiletries, toothpaste, and oh, yes, toilet paper!).

the moon rising over the chapel on March 10, the night before we left.
i took this picture standing on our terrace. 

i'm grateful for the technology that allows us to stay in contact with Greta's teacher and classmates. i'm sad that she and Cecilia are missing the last few months of their Italian immersion education, and especially for Greta missing her beloved ballet class with her incredible instructor.

i'm beyond grateful for the time we had in Rome. it would have been amazing had it lasted for only a month, or a year. i'm still sad that we can't enjoy the last few months there to the fullest, as we had planned.

i'm grateful for the seminarians, deacons, fifth-year priests, sisters, and faculty at the college. i'm sad especially for the deacons set to be ordained later this spring, who are missing these last months of fellowship with their fellow seminarians and whose plans for these celebrations may need to be modified or postponed.

i'm grateful that we have a place to live, an entire garage full of stuff, everything to cover our material needs. i still get anxious thinking about what fresh hell we may all encounter next month as the economic ramifications of this really start to kick in. (here's an excellent article my friend Khai shared addressing the sense of anticipatory grief many of us currently feel.)

i'm grateful for my friends and family who are on the front lines of medicine. i'm sad that i can't actively practice again here myself yet (although hoping that will change soon!). and i'm saddened and angered by the inadequate preparation and response by hospital and government administrators to provide the required PPE and testing materials.

i'm incredibly grateful for creative priests who come up with ways for us to safely join in worship, both through technology and through drive-up confessions and Eucharistic adoration. i'm so sad not to be worshiping in person with the seminarians or at our home parish here, and so sad not to be receiving Jesus in the Eucharist.

i'm grateful that all four of us have been feeling completely fine. i'm sad for my friends both locally and in Italy who have confirmed cases of COVID-19, and for those who have suspected cases but can't get tested.

i'm so grateful that friends and family have generously given us tons (i mean, literally, probably close to one thousand pounds) of books, DVDs, games, books, art supplies, craft projects, and toys to help occupy the girls. i'm sad that we can't take them to the zoo or to the playground or to Phipps or to the library.

bonus: lots of those toys turn out to be great fun in the tub

i'm grateful for our journalists and the technology that makes it possible for us to stay up to date with breaking news reports and all the statistics for affected countries. i'm frustrated by the clickbait headlines and sensationalism that drive mass hysteria and can worsen anxiety and counterproductive behavior.

i'm grateful for FaceTime and other technology enabling video calls with family all around the country, remote play dates, and even a fantastic virtual double date last night with Amelia and Ryan. i'm sad that we're back in the US and yet we still have to rely on screens to connect with the people we love.

the screen on the top right shows James giving us a virtual tour
of his machine shop, which is still open as an essential business!

well, i could go on, but that's about enough for one afternoon. we're taking this one day at a time because, literally who knows what tomorrow will bring? right now, i'm just grateful to have made it through to day 13.

made by one of Cecilia's preschool classmates

Monday, March 16, 2020

february reads

well, now that the world has gone completely crazy over COVID-19, i'd imagine a lot more of us are looking for some good books to read! here's what i read in February.

 I Capture the Castle: Young Adult Edition

1) I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. never have i read a book that so perfectly aligns with my own somewhat whimsical, naive writing style as a teenager. the book grows out of the protagonist's series of notebooks that she uses as her own journal, growing up in the 1930s. imagine the Anne of Green Gables books told in the first person and you'll have a good sense of the book. 5/5.

“When I read a book, I put in all the imagination I can, so that it is almost like writing the book as well as reading it - or rather, it is like living it. It makes reading so much more exciting, but I don't suppose many people try to do it.” 


2) The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo. i picked this up to read prior to our trip to Paris over Valentine's Day weekend, hoping that Hugo's novel would allow me to immerse myself in the milieu of the city just as much as my all-time favourite Hugo work, Les Miserables. i was not disappointed! the plot is fast-paced, the characters are skillfully drawn, and the setting drives the story forward. also, i'm now fascinated to know the Disney adaptation of the story (which i've never seen), because the original is definitely not child-friendly!  5/5.

The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel

3) The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George. this book tells the tale of Monsieur Perdu, a Parisian bookseller who runs his shop like a pharmacy, often refusing to give his customers the books they walk in requesting but instead choosing a tome from his eclectic collection that he knows will soothe their secret worries. it's far fetched, witty, and delightful. 5/5. 


4) The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir, by Ruth Wariner. similar to the bestselling Educated, this book is the autobiographical account of a girl raised in a polygamist cult, the 39th of 42 children born to her father. the physical neglect and sexual and emotional abuse she suffered is heart-wrenching, and it's precisely because of that that her resilience and determination are so incredible. a tough read that will infuriate you that children suffer in this way -- consider yourself warned. 5/5. 

“Mom couldn’t teach me that because she didn’t know herself. She couldn’t show me how to be happy, only how to barely survive.”

American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent

5) American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent, by Tamer Elnoury. an absolutely fascinating account of a Muslim FBI agent who is recruited to do undercover work investigating terrorists linked with al Qaeda on Canadian and American soil. (he uses his previous undercover name as his pen name to protect his real identity.) i appreciated learning more about all that goes into the FBI undercover process, as well as more about the Muslim faith. 

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

6) Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, by Roxane Gay. ugh. it's atrocious that a book like this needs to exist, but it does. this is an anthology of essays written by women who, at one point at another (like all of us have), told themselves, "it wasn't that bad." some of them address rape; some of them address other forms of sexual harassment, from catcalling to mansplaining to gas-lighting. i appreciated the diversity of viewpoints and experiences highlighted. 

"Because slightly more than half of the population is regularly told that what happens doesn’t or that it isn’t the big deal we’re making it into. Because your mothers, sisters, and daughters are routinely second-guessed, blown off, discredited, denigrated, besmirched, belittled, patronized, mocked, shamed, gaslit, insulted, bullied, harassed, threatened, punished, propositioned, and groped, and challenged on what they say. Because when a woman challenges a man, then the facts are automatically in dispute, as is the speaker, and the speaker’s license to speak. Because as women we are told to view and value ourselves in terms of how men view and value us, which is to say, for our sexuality and agreeability. Because it was drilled in until it turned subconscious and became unbearable need: don’t make it about you; put yourself second or last; disregard your feelings but not another’s; disbelieve your perceptions whenever the opportunity presents itself; run and rerun everything by yourself before verbalizing it—put it in perspective, interrogate it: Do you sound nuts? Does this make you look bad? Are you holding his interest? Are you being considerate? Fair? Sweet? Because stifling trauma is just good manners."

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Cece says (vol. 5)

the day after i unsuccessfully tried to show her the man in the moon: "hey, you know what you can see if you look at the moon? a crawling crocodile!"

out of the blue one day, putting her hands on my cheeks and looking straight into my eyes: "Mama, when are you going to be a saint?" (out of the mouths of babes!!)

pointing at a crow: "Mommy, it's a condor!" (still have no idea where she learned about condors!)

after crying: "Mama, can you get the wetmess out of my eyes?" (she still flips her 'm's and 'n's and i just love it.)

we talk a lot about body parts and functions, so Cecilia knows that some of the water she drinks eventually gets turned into pee and is stored in her bladder until she needs to go to the bathroom. the other day, completely out of the blue while playing with her toys, she said: "Mommy! when i drink milk, does that turn into pee in my bladder too?" #proudestmommoment #futurebiologist

while using the bathrooms at St. Peter's Basilica, which don't have toilet seats, i was holding her over the seat so she could go: "Mama, don't drop me in."
me: "I won't."
Cece: "good, because only toilet paper goes in the toilet. i'm not toilet paper. I AM A HUMAN!!!"

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Carnevale, Ash Wednesday, and Lent in Italy!

one of the best parts of living in a foreign country is embracing their cultural traditions. of course, this means temporarily letting go of some of our own familiar customs, like neighborhood trick-or-treating on Halloween. here in Rome, the kids may dress up on Halloween itself and do a trick-or-treat activity at school, but there's nowhere near the excitement and community participation that there is in the US, and certainly no All Saint's Day parties for the girls to attend. this has been a major disappointment for them since we moved here, but this year, the Carnevale festivities more than made up for it!

Carnevale in Rome is not as elaborate as it is in Venice or Brazil; it's mostly focused on the kids, who are seen walking about the city in costume for weeks in January and February. Cecilia's preschool class had a special Carnevale party the week before Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday), when they all dressed up and then walked down to the local park to play and throw confetti around (the traditional Carnevale activity). with her recent DIY bang trim, she looked exactly like Anna from Frozen, and she knew it!

all the girls in her class! 

best field trip ever. (Cecilia is in the pink multi-colored coat, climbing up the fireman's pole)

Anna on the way home from school
the biggest Carnevale party occurred at school on Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday) itself. both girls got to dress up, and on the walk down to school, they were greeted by huge smiles and comments of "bellisima!" and "che bel vestito!" (what a beautiful dress!) from total strangers. we always pass a group of nuns walking up to the university adjacent to the seminary on our way to school, and usually Greta just ignores them despite my reminders of common courtesy (face palm) while they sweetly say hello to us each morning. today, she must have felt so full of regal rapture that she waved and said, "buongiorno!" to each of them!

Cinderella! you can't really see in the picture, but she's wearing glittery jelly shoes
that are a pretty good substitute for glass slippers.

Anna, round 2! it was her idea to add the pink headband.

i just can't stand the cuteness!

two of Greta's best friends at school... that's a whole
lot of sass for six-year-olds!

the party continued at school, where each class went to see a spettacolo (show) in the school's theater and then had a special snack in the afternoon. that evening, Nick took the girls to the seminary's Mardi Gras celebration so they could party it up even more with beads, hats and masks.

meanwhile, Mom, Auntie Kris and i were having a memorable Fat Tuesday of our own, attending an operatic concert at the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj -- more on that later! 

Ash Wednesday in Italy is celebrated a little bit differently than in the US. instead of marking the sign of the cross on your forehead, the ashes are sprinkled on the crown of your head. i find it a much more startling reminder of the fact that "to dust we will return". Mom and Auntie Kris happened to be visiting the Pantheon just before a late afternoon mass began, and they stayed for the service so Mom got her first Italian ashes! Greta's class attended a full mass at school with the traditional ash-sprinkling; Cecilia's class dipped their fingers in a bowl of ash and placed fingerprints on a banner hanging in the school hallway.

"Wednesday of the Ashes". Quaresima means Lent; Pasqua means Easter.
the colors of the rainbow mean forgiveness, prayer, listening, change, respect,
love, and peace. the bottom of the banner says: "I promise to commit myself to
be more good, and I sign with my fingerprint."
and so, Lent has begun! this year, our entire family is giving up sweets. i'm giving up my morning social media scroll, replacing it with the readings of the day. we also made a prayer chain for all 40 days of Lent plus Sundays (represented with the white loops). it's been a simple way to incorporate more prayer into our day: each loop has the name of a person or a group of people, with a few left for personal intention. each morning, one of the girls tears a loop off the chain (shockingly, there have been few fights about whose turn it is so far!). we say a quick prayer on the spot and then throughout the day.

this weekend, the seminarians observe a weekend of silent reflection, meaning there was no conversation after mass or at brunch. this was the third silent weekend for us, so the girls were prepared for it. Greta asked me, "did the seminarians give up being loud for Lent?" ha! as we ate our pancakes and sausage in the refectory, a playlist of instrumental and choral music muffled the sounds of silverware on plates and chairs scraping the floor. some of the men chose to sit alone at tables; some brought books to do some spiritual reading while they ate. most ate at tables together, with requests for salt and pepper made by eye contact. the girls remembered to whisper their requests the entire time, except for the very end of brunch when we were taking our dirty dishes out to the kitchen and Greta broke the silence by calling, "Cece!" to the great amusement of seminarians and faculty alike. some of these disciplines are not exactly designed for family life, but it's still good to raise the bar from time to time!

as a convert to Catholicism, i have a profound appreciation for the season of Lent. it's challenging, but it makes the season of Easter all the more joyful. the ebb and flow of the liturgical seasons mirrors the cycle of nature and our own human inclination for fasting and feasting. as Pope Benedict XVI said:
"Lent is like a long 'retreat' during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One. It is a period of spiritual 'combat' which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. In this way we will be able to celebrate Easter in truth, ready to renew the promises of our Baptism."
i wish you all a fruitful and inspiring Lent!