Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Italy, Day 126

three months in, and it feels like the blink of an eye that lasted a lifetime. today, December 11, has been on our calendar for weeks as the day when we would have to present ourselves, our documents, our passports, our folders carefully prepared by Beatrice (the secretary at the College who specializes in immigration), photos in quadruplicate, and anything else we could think of at the local police station, the Questura. this is the second step in the three-part process of obtaining the permesso di soggiorno (literally, permission to stay - similar to an Italian green card, and required for foreigners staying beyond 90 days). for the first part, we trekked over to the post office by the Pantheon with another folder (also prepared by Beatrice, bless her!), to be given an appointment date and time at the Questura. the original date was actually August 28, but Beatrice rescheduled it to better fit Nick's schedule at the college. so now at this second step, we would go to the Questura with all of our documents for fingerprinting and security checks. the third step is actually picking up your permesso di soggiorno, which takes about 2 months from the fingerprinting appointment. (and you have to renew it every year - so by time you get yours, you typically only have about 6 months before it's time to start the process again!)

i had heard horror stories of people waiting four hours after their appointment time to even make it up to the desk, or people being turned away for not having a document that didn't even appear on the list of required documents. and while i have every faith in our liaison Beatrice, there's still no telling what capricious whims might strike the fancy of the actual officials in charge of legalizing our stay here. so last night, i carefully laid out our folders from Beatrice, containing the attestation letter from the Rector of the College verifying Nick's contract, copies of our passports and visas, and the receipts from our application at the post office. then, for good measure, i filled a folder with anything else i could think of: the girls' birth certificates, declaration of our insurance policy covering us here in Italy, and our codice fiscale certificates (which i really didn't think were relevant, but you never know). i put some snacks and activities in the diaper bag backpack for the girls, and made sure Greta's backpack was ready with everything she would need for school (on Tuesdays, she stays all day at school for her gymnastics class at the end of the day). then i set my alarm for 6:30 AM. we had the first appointment of the day at 8:30 AM, but Beatrice had advised we get there at 7:15 AM (for reasons which became abundantly clear later). since Nick had to play for morning prayer which concluded at 7:15, we would be rushing to get there as soon as possible after he finished (but one of the other seminarians, Matt, had to renew his permesso this morning too, and the plan was for him to arrive promptly at 7:15 and take numbers for us so we'd be good to go as soon as they started calling numbers at 8:30). 

well, i woke up to Nick saying "babe! it's quarter after 7!" somehow i hadn't realized when turning on my alarm that it was only set for certain days - and Tuesday wasn't one of them. so i threw on some clothes, bolted down a cup of coffee that Nick had brewed before he left the house at 5:30 (!) and wrestled a protesting Greta into her clothes while Nick got Cecilia ready. we flew out the door, only to stop in our tracks to at the acrid smell in the air. we couldn't see any smoke, but it definitely smelled like burning rubber. we continued down the hill, crossed an eerily quiet St. Peter's Square, and got to the Questura by 7:45. we were to report to a specific room that is reserved for people seeking the permesso for religious purposes, so it wasn't a surprise to see ninety percent of the people in collars or habits, but it was a surprise to see thirty people already waiting in this room, forty-five minutes before the Questura even opened. thank goodness for Matt, who had arrived before any of the rest of them, drawing number 31 for himself, 32 for Nick and 33 for me.

as we waited, we dicussed the burning smell. it turns out that a landfill to the north of Rome caught fire this morning ... no wonder it smelled bad. in fact, the schools were mandated to keep kids inside with windows closed today because of concerns over the air quality (although the smell had disappeared by mid-morning).

and then, it was our turn! the actual process was less stressful than i anticipated in some ways, although of course, this being Italy, we were in for some surprises. first of all, they started calling numbers at 8:31 (technically one minute late, but practically early by Italian standards!), and though Matt was actually first, because we had the kids, the lady called us back first. (sorry, Matt!) secondly, the folder Beatrice prepared for us was sufficient (grazie mille, Beatrice!) and they didn't ask to see any other documentation (nor did they actually want four passport photos as was explicitly stated on the paperwork - they only wanted one of Nick, and one of myself, and none of the girls! oh well). but i was mistaken in thinking that we would complete the whole process right then and there. after checking our documents, the lady kept our passports and told us to go back to the little room and wait to be called for the fingerprinting. that finally happened around 9:30 AM. we had to go outside and back in a room, two doors down, for the finger printing. once that was finished, they told us to go back into the waiting room and wait "five minutes" before being called again as they had to run the background checks. by this point, it was ten AM and i needed to change Cecilia's diaper (and use the bathroom myself, to be honest). i asked if there was a bathroom available and they said "yes, yes, but after the security clearance" so we traipsed back into the little waiting room. we had waited there for about fifteen minutes when they called number 32, so we all headed back outside but then the fingerprinting guy said that he only wanted Nick, and i should go back to the waiting room with the girls. so back we went, and we had only been there for about a minute when suddenly the first lady came out from behind her desk, said something in Italian that i didn't understand, and everybody stood up and walked outside. Greta asked if it was a fire drill, and i said "no" because it would be ridiculous to have a fire drill! but i still couldn't explain what was happening. then somebody did say it was a fire drill! can you imagine a fire drill at the local DMV? so bizarre. anyway, we all stood around in the square across the street for about five minutes, before being told it was okay to go back inside. meanwhile, Nick was trying to get in touch with the organ tuner and maintenance man who flew in from Paris on Sunday to tune the organs here -- he was supposed to meet him this morning but hadn't counted on us being here so long (it was now 10:30 AM).

anyway, after another five minutes or so, they finally called us back over to the fingerprinting side, let me use the bathroom and change Cecilia (who had been helpfully calling out "poop! I poop!" every so often), and took more fingerprints and measured our height. we were then presented with a letter giving us a link to track the process of our permesso online, and another letter instructing us to appear at another office on January 14 to watch a two-hour film about Italian citizenship (in English). that was another surprise as i haven't heard anybody mention this in all the research i've done about the permesso process!

and then, blessedly, the fingerprinting guy said "finito! arrivederci!" and Nick flew off meet the organ tuner and the girls and i headed home. it was 11 AM, and i didn't want to disrupt Greta's class as they were having a special service in the chapel today, so i messaged her teacher to say i'd bring her over after lunch.

after lunch of PB&J (and leftover lasagna for me), i packed up the girls again, dropped Greta off at school, and headed off to do my twice weekly grocery shopping. today i had another mission, too: i want to bake Christmas cookies with the girls, but i need cookie cutters, wire racks, and sprinkles! those things just aren't to be found in the regular grocery stores. after lots of googling, i did discover a kitchen store called Peroni not too far from my usual grocery store, so we set off. and the store is so cute! i really do miss the convenience of one-stop shopping (especially when i have the girls with me), but the benefit is that when you can find the shop that has what you need, it's usually quite well stocked! anyway, i successfully got what i needed and enjoyed the walk as i had never actually been on those streets before (strange, because i walk the blocks on either side of that area quite often!). just when i think i know Rome, she surprises me!

there was another surprise as i walked over to the grocery store. i spied a glint beneath my shoe as i walked on a street i've walked at least a dozen times before. and yes, there was a stolpersteine, a brass "stumbling stone" which is a memorial to a Jewish person who lived in the nearest building and was killed during the Holocaust. reading the details on this stone gave me the chills: this person was one of those rounded up off the streets and massacred at the Fosse Ardeatine site, which Rebecca and i visited in October.

it was ironic that i noticed this stone today, because last night, many of the Instagram accounts i follow were reporting that a group of twenty stolpersteine dedicated to the Di Consiglio family were stolen the night before from the nearby neighborhood of Monti, at Via Madonna dei Monti, 82. to steal the very thing that memorialized this family is somehow even more appalling than to vandalize it. so, today, i spent a few moments reflecting, remembering those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and the eleven people who were killed during the attack in Pittsburgh on October 27 of this year. we will not forget you.

the rest of the afternoon has been uneventful. in a few minutes, Cecilia and i will walk down to pick up Greta from school, and then i'll make dinner for us. later tonight, i'll put together another meal for our friend who had a baby over Thanksgiving (and probably freeze it for easier transportation! i haven't quite figured out how to carry a whole meal over to her without a car and without spilling anything!). and that last conundrum i feel sums up much of our time in Italy. the rituals and rhythm of daily life go on; there are just a few twists here and there. and, fire drills and all, it's worth it to be here in the Eternal City.

Monday, December 10, 2018

november reads

oh my. this was the month where my (reading) eyes were definitely too big for my (reading) stomach. you all had such great recommendations for me on books to read before our trip to Europe, and i still couldn't manage to finish them all! (p.s. the following links are affiliate - meaning if you click through to purchase on Amazon, i will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you!)

1) Journey to Munich: A Maisie Dobbs Novel, by Jacqueline Winspear. this novel is #12 in a series of books, none of which i'd read before this one, but i still enjoyed it very much. the author did an excellent job of briefly summarizing previous events and character developments in the series so i felt that i understood the context, without appearing redundant to more obedient readers who started with book #1 and proceeded in order. anyway, it's a light, fast-paced read about a woman involved in a British intelligence agency in the years leading up to World War II. 

2) A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, by Frederic Morton. i loved this book. reading it is like standing in front of a huge painting populated with all of the most famous figures in nineteenth century Viennese society: the royal family, Franz Schubert, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, and many others. Morton artfully focuses in on one person at a time, then pans back to the whole scene and highlights another. towards the end of the book, he centers his attention on the Crown Prince Rudolf and his affair with the socialite Mary Vetsera. absolutely fascinating! 

3) The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco. i wanted to read this book to learn more about Prague ... and was woefully disappointed. i suppose i should have read the description more thoroughly to understand what i was getting: political intrigue and religious conspiracies, all swirling together in a crazy tale of an even crazier, fake document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that really was distributed in the early 1900s to fan the flames of antisemitism. the document was supposed to have been drafted to expose the discussion of Jewish leaders during a secret meeting in the Prague cemetery; none of the plot actually occurred in Prague, so i kept turning the pages in vain waiting for some elaborate description of the city. i didn't realize that there actually had been such a document either, so the impact of the book was somewhat lost on me as i thought it was purely fiction. but i did enjoy reading about the efforts of the Italian unification movement and how it intersected with European politics of the day. the last half of the book was quite dark with some very disturbing images of Satanic rituals, tales of depravity and generally the worst parts of human nature, so consider yourself warned. even though it was not at all what i thought it would be, i still gave it 4 out of 5 stars on Goodreads because it is very well-written ... it's not Umberto Eco's fault that i didn't read the synopsis before plunging in! 

4) Memories Before and After the Sound of Music: An Autobiography, by Agathe von Trapp. after the Eco debacle, i needed something fresh and wholesome, and Agathe von Trapp's autobiography was exactly that. she wrote this at 89 years of age, and it's a fascinating account of the von Trapp family's actual life (which, as you can imagine, was different in many ways from the account portrayed in The Sound of Music). one major difference was that Captain Georg von Trapp was an accomplished musician himself and often sang with the children. she says that his portrayal as stern and regimented was completely false. i enjoyed reading about their upbringing in various towns around Austria, as well as their adventures once they came to America and began their singing careers. highly recommend! 

5) Waiting for Sunrise, by William Boyd. another novel set in Vienna, but quite different from Frederic Morton's panoramic view. this book opens with the main character having traveled to Vienna for psychoanalysis. the people he encounters propel the plot forward in a fast-paced, enjoyable account of the years leading up to World War I. the novel switches from third person to first person quite effectively and there are just enough plot twists and intrigue to keep you guessing. another 5 star winner!

here's what's on December's bookshelf:

-Fatelessness, Imre Kertesz
-The Accidental Empress, Allison Pataki
-Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger
-The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
-I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce #4), Alan Bradley
-Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder (read-aloud with Greta)

and still on my European reading list:

-The Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning
-Where Eagles Dare, Alistair MacLean
-Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

-Between the Woods and the Water, Patrick Leigh Fermor

and still plowing through: 

-Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy, Wallis Wilde-Menozzi

sooo my eyes are still too big for my stomach. what's a girl to do when there are just so many books in the world?! 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

in which Greta drives a Trabant and we drink shots with our eco-farm hosts {The Great European Road Trip Day 5: Budapest, Hungary to Slovenj Gradec, Slovenia}

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

Thursday, November 1: we were able to sleep in a little and eat a leisurely breakfast at the Kalvin House. the girls even got their first bath of the trip (this was the first place we'd stayed that had a tub!). feeling refreshed, we said goodbye to our palatial accommodations and drove to St. Stephen's Basilica for All Saints' Day Mass. the church is named after Hungary's first king, St. Stephen, who ruled from 1000-1038 A.D. his preserved right hand is in a reliquary here, which we were able to see briefly after mass (before they ushered us out to clear the area before the next mass!)

St. Gerard of Csanád, one of Hungary's patron saints

bust of St. Stephen above the door

after mass, the girls gallivanted around outside the church for a little bit, and then Angel had the brilliant idea to go get ice cream at a famous shop which sculpts the ice cream into the shape of a flower.

the most delicious bouquet! 
we then set off on an epic quest for a public restroom, and ended up at a Burger King a few blocks away at the recommendation of a guy in a little wine shop. we all traipsed downstairs to find the bathroom door locked with a small sign stating that you had to get the code from a receipt of purchase to unlock the door. so back up the stairs i went, to buy a bottle of water ... and of course they didn't take euros, only Hungarian forints. so after waiting for my credit card to go through, i finally flew down the stairs, triumphant, before anybody peed their pants. small victories!

when we made it back to the van, Father Aron had cooked up a genius plan to drop off the girls at an indoor trampoline park while the rest of the group squeezed in some more sightseeing. Nick gallantly agreed to watch them while i got to indulge in an hour of grownup time! the girls had an absolute blast. when i thanked Nick for taking one for the team after we met up again, he laughed and said he had fun too! they really needed this time to just play and do something that was entirely geared towards them for a while.

not exactly the most aerodynamic way to slide

meanwhile, the rest of us drove up the hill to the Buda Castle district to visit the Matthias Church. this church was founded in 1015 by St. Stephen (whose eponymous church we had just left), and has quite an interesting history. during the Turkish occupation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the church was transformed into a mosque, all of its frescoes were painted over, and a stone wall was built to hide a votive statue of the Blessed Mother. in 1686, the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars raged over Hungary and other parts of the empire. the Holy League, led by Pope Innocent XI, laid siege to Buda. cannon fire caused that stone wall to fall, revealing the statue. the Turks panicked, and the Christian armies reclaimed the city of Buda later that day.

bronze statue of St. Stephen on his horse

 another notable historical fact is that the Emperor Franz Joseph and Queen Elizabeth were crowned here in 1867, as well as the last Habsburg king, Charles IV, in 1916. the church was named after King Matthias, who ordered the reconstruction and building of the southern tower in the nineteenth century, not St. Matthias (St. Matthew).

inside, every inch of the church is covered with intricate frescoes. my camera doesn't do it justice!

this statue of our Blessed Mother is traditionally thought to be the one that appeared to the Turks when the stone wall collapsed, although it's not clear that it is actually the same one. 

this capital is decorated with faces of famous Hungarian kings
we also explored the Fisherman's Bastion, the terrace overlooking the Western bank of the Danube. the bastion was constructed with seven towers, representing the seven Magyar tribes that settled here in 895, to protect the side of the Buda castle. it is said that the fishermen's guild was responsible for defending this part of the city. today, it's swarming with tourists and vendors, a fascinating place to walk while taking in the best views of the city.

we finally went back down the hill and rejoined Nick and the girls. by this point, it was after 2 PM and we all needed some lunch. Father had a great traditional Hungarian restaurant in mind, but we still have no idea where it is because neither the van GPS nor Google Maps on Father's phone could get us there. we spent a frustrating fifteen minutes circling on and off the highway, arguing about which way to turn when none of the street signs matched up with the GPS directions, and eventually just ended up at a McDonald's as we wanted to squeeze in a visit to Memento Park before we left Budapest to head towards Slovenia. 

but our disappointing lunch was overshadowed by Memento Park, which exceeded our expectations. as we pulled in, an ancient speaker was blasting Communist era music at full volume. the first exhibit in the park was an old Trabant car. i had never heard of them, but Nick and Father were like kids in a candy shop, hopping in the front seat and looking under the hood. Greta was into it, too! 

all you ever wanted to know about the Trabant!

we walked ahead to the rest of the park, which is dotted with 42 oversize statues from the Communist era that used to stand in various places around Budapest. the subjects include Lenin and Marx, as well as abstract monuments to Liberation and Hungarian-Soviet Friendship. while the guys struck poses with the gigantic dictators, Greta and Cecilia entertained themselves by playing in the gravel and had their own little photo shoot with Angel and Carly. 

America's Next Top Model?

classic Cecilia eye-roll while playing with the Rubik's cube she got in her Happy Meal
then it was back in the car for the three-and-a-half hour drive southwest to Slovenia. Father's trampoline park plan paid off, as both girls fell asleep in the car and slept most of the way. night fell as we passed Lake Balaton, and after a stop for some gas station snacks, we arrived in the town of Slovenj Gradec, Slovenia around eight PM. 

i have to confess that i felt the most ignorant about Slovenia, of all the countries we visited on this trip. i had no idea what to expect from the culture or the architecture, and the bottom line is that Slovenia is beautiful. but we couldn't see much of it until the next day, since we arrived after dark. we were staying in an eco-farm located just outside the town, and as we left the city limits, the GPS directed to make a hairpin turn up the hillside. we continued up, switchback after switchback on an increasingly narrow dirt road, squealing at every turn, squinting our eyes at the darkness outside the window to see just exactly how close we were to plummeting off the edge to our presumed deaths. finally the van scrabbled up onto a paved plateau and it was smooth driving for the next five minutes until we arrived at our destination. 

we were immediately greeted by a fluffy white dog who, despite his fluff, definitely looked like he actively herded sheep. the girls were delighted, and when we entered the farmhouse, the welcome continued! the hosts had shots of homemade schnapps for all the adults, and we raised them in a toast to surviving that hill! (we asked the hostess about the GPS directions later, and she said that there's a perfectly paved road just a bit beyond where we turned onto the dirt road that would have brought us straight to them! darn GPS!!)

photo credit: one of the Pongrac girls! Na zdrowie!
then our hosts treated us to an absolutely delicious homemade dinner, made with ingredients sourced from their farm (including the lamb!), all washed down with homemade apple wine. as we sat around the huge wooden table, Greta played with the pool table and Cecilia colored (and eventually started watching Daniel Tiger on my phone, as we relaxed and talked). 

and again... Na zdrowie!

delicious soup!

we practically applauded when our host brought out this cauldron of meat.

prune dumplings - i was skeptical once i discovered they contained prunes, but they were so good!
at last, we brought our luggage upstairs and settled into our rooms. we had a veritable apartment, with a full kitchen, separate bedroom, pack 'n' play for Cece, and a sweet little twin bed for Greta. (of course, Greta ended up sleeping in our bed yet again, but Cecilia actually slept in the pack 'n' play!) the Pongracs' room was adorable too -- Carly and Rylee were sleeping in a little dormer room with a steeply slanted roof. 

Greta discovered all kinds of kids' cups in the cupboards

Cecilia was thrilled to find a little step stool in the bathroom!

Greta's adorable bed
we really could not fathom leaving this place in the morning. everything was both cozy and immaculately clean, every need anticipated, and our hosts were so kind! we actually discussed canceling our reservation at the next night's lodging and staying here another night instead, since our next stay would be at an alpine hut without electricity (and we weren't sure about the toilet situation, although we were pretty sure there would be running water). there were several cries of "do we HAVE to stay at The Hut?", and i think we actually might have changed the reservation except that we had already paid a non-refundable $250. as it turned out, though i would love to go back to the eco-farm (especially in the summer!), The Hut was an unforgettable adventure and i'm so glad we stuck with the original plan. but that, my dears, is a tale for tomorrow!