Monday, August 18, 2008

The Last of the Italy Logs

Well, this is the last of last year's travel logs. Starting tomorrow I will get you up to speed on the last couple of weeks activities. I hope you enjoyed the break from the whole living/dying schtick I've got going.

The Kindness of Strangers

I have coughing fits nearly every day. I know when they are about to happen and, if I act quickly, I can usually keep them from getting too severe. I was at the pool with the kids last week and I could tell that one was about to occur. Not wanting to leave them unattended, I delayed and missed the opportunity to avert a crisis. By the time I got to the locker room to get money for a cold water, it was too late. I was coughing too hard to even get the key in the lock. Soon three young Italian women came over to help me, but I was completely unable to speak. Then I heard someone speaking English. An Irish women asked me what I needed and took my key. While she rifled through my bag, one of the Italian women ran and got help. I managed to get myself to a bench and tried to breathe. Before I knew it I was flanked on either side by two of the lifeguards. Next thing I knew one had my shoulders and the other had my legs. Mind you I was wearing the teeny bikini. “Oh god, where are they taking me,” I thought. They placed me on the ground, which made it impossible for me to get in any air. I scrambled back onto the bench and continued to struggle. Finally I got out the words, “No medicine. Water, cold water.” While we waited for water, one of the lifeguards kept repeating, “Calma, Calma.” I realize now how bad these fits must looking because I had amassed a pretty huge audience. When the water arrived, one of them proceed to pour it all over my head and back. When I had fantasies about a gorgeous, bare-chested Italian man taking my breath away this was NOT what I had in mind. I finally was able to convey the idea that I needed to DRINK the water. About this time Loredana, who runs the snack bar, arrived with ice water. She had seen me have a much less severe attack they first day at the pool and had remembered the ice. Then an American women I had been chatting with earlier in the day arrived on the scene and asked if I needed her to translate. By this time the water was working it’s magic and I could speak. The lifeguards asked if I need an ambulance and I explained that the coughing fits occured frequently and that it was now over. I explained the situation to the American who translated and, I thought, made it clear that I was now fine. Loredana took Aidan and another parent watched Amelia so that I could pull myself together.

When I went out to the snack bar to get Aidan, he was happily sucking on a lollipop. Loredana told me that the ambulance had arrived and asked if I wanted to see the medic. I felt so badly about all the fuss that I agreed. The medic took my vital signs and there was much ado about my blood pressure, which was 80/60 but not unusual for me. I could catch a word here and there and it was clear that everyone thought I should eat and lie down. The medic asked if I wanted to go to the hospital and I refused. Loredana handed me some crackers and Alessandro, my new best friend, made me lie down in the infirmary. Once I felt like I had rested enough to make everyone happy I sat up. Alessandro asked me to call my husband to come get me so that I wouldn’t have to take the bus home. Once I explained that we did not have a car, he arranged to borrow one and took me and the kids home. I wanted to kiss him for sparing me the 1/8 mile walk up a 30% grade to the bus stop. I cannot express how much I hate that walk.

Throughout the entire ordeal I was struck by the reality that here in a country where I know virtually no one, all of my needs were met in an instant by strangers. It makes you feel good about the world when somehow, someway you have everything you need even when you are incapable of getting it on your own accord.

Mangia Bene!

It will come as no surprise that eating has been one of our greatest pleasures here. I like the food so much here that I lay awake at night thinking about what I’m going to eat the next day. Granted, I am awake because it is hotter than hell, there is too much light in the room, and our fellow dorm residents stay up talking until 2 am. I have a very narrow range of acceptable sleeping conditions and I find myself wishing I was a sleep slut like Bill who can fall asleep under any circumstances. So I alternate between thinking about food and singing Schoolhouse Rock songs to myself. The kids have really enjoyed that DVD, but I can’t get “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly” out of my head.

I’ve never been a big meat-eater but 6 weeks in Italy has turned me into a carnivore. The meat here tastes so much better than in the US. Even turkey, which is hardly a popular Italian meat, is infinitely better than ours. Amelia eats it plain with her breakfast and I find myself eating two sandwiches everyday for lunch. Similarly, the eggs are absolutely delicious. In the US I tolerate the yolks of a hard boiled eggs while I relish them here. I now have some serious concerns about US poultry production. The salami and proscuitto are incredible, especially when paired with melon or piadina (the delicious Italian variant of a tortilla). We’ve also eaten an awful lot of olives, an addiction that might prove to be expensive to keep up on the other side of the pond. And Amelia and I have also developed a real affection for tuna packed in olive oil; I will never go back to the spring water variety if I can help it.

The Lonely Planet guide has a sidebar detailing the 5 Italian restaurants to visit if you had one night left in Italy. To our delight one of them, Osteria del Ghiotonne, is in Perugia. We went there with my best friend Marie and her husband Jan and made complete pigs of ourselves. I was on about day 5 of steroids and really enjoying my new ability to chow down. We ate a platter of mixed antipasti and another of mixed salumi and melon. Then everyone else devoured their pasta dishes while I enjoyed a very hearty, peasant-style vegetable soup thicken with toasted bread. After that Bill, Marie and Jan moved onto their meat dishes while I enjoyed the lightest, most delicious gnocchi I have ever had. Gnocchi, for the unindoctrinated, are made from potatoes and flour. Made poorly they lie like bullets in your stomach. But these gnocchi were the lightest that I have ever eaten, perhaps because they were not made with cheese as the usually are. I’m still thinking about them. We finished our meal 100 euros lighter, a pounder or two heavier, and incredibly satisfied.

So between turkey sandwiches, peasant soups, Roman pizza, and Perugian gnocchi, I have plenty of fodder for my sleepless nights. I may be exhausted beyond description but at least my stomach is happy.

The Tipping Point

Here in Italy I could no longer ignore the reality that my lungs are failing. I have known for several months that I was not feeling as well but I kept hoping it was just temporary. On this trip, however, my disease final brought me to my knees. I keep thinking back the the Scala Sancta in Rome. The stairs were brought to Rome by Constantine at the request of his mother, St. Monica. Pilgrims ascend the stairs on their knees only. I didn’t join them but I felt as if I were among them if only in a proverbial way.

During my time here, the metaphor of emotional baggage seemed suddenly apropos. As I watched the children in Santa Marie Novella station that first day, I had to choke back tears. Each had a smaller bag drapped around their neck. Aidan was dragging two roller bags and Amelia was dragging a bag half her size. All I could carry was a bottle of water and they were forced to compensate, dragging bags half their size but more importantly bearing an emotional burden that seems terribly unfair and premature. I watched them and wondered how their little hearts don’t break. Was I wrong to drag them into this? Not the trip, this life, this drama? Now I realize what they will have to endure when I succumb to this disease and I feel a horrific sense of guilt. And I watched Bill carrying three large and heavy suitcases, the stress unspoken but mounting. Suddenly the size of the emotional burden seemed to have a dimension and I could visualize the burden of parenting the kids alone. What had I done?

For so long I have “done it all” in defiance of my illness. I guess I thought if everything seemed normal then indeed it was. Here, in Italy, I finally came to my senses but not in the way I expected. I expected to be overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, the food, the sites but instead I was overwhelmed with the reality of my own life. Here I finally realized that by burning the candle at both ends I was using it up at double the rate. I often think the Rolling Stones could not have been more correct in observing that we don’t always get what we want but rather what we need. Had this been an easy trip I would have returned to life in the US and continued as normal. But being brought to my knees forced me to make a very difficult decision to stop working. While I had been contemplating it for a long time, I needed something to force my hand. And now that the decision is made and all the appropriate people have been told, I feel tremendous relief and, admittedly, a little trepidation because I can no longer define myself by my career. But the decision feels very right. I hope that when I finish up at the university (I vest in December) I will be able to focus my energy on my health and my family. I hope this will maximize the quality and length of my life.

Today we missed our last of three trains on our way back from Rimini. Bill ran up to the station while the kids and I waited in the sottopassaggio (underpass between platforms). Bill was taking forever and I really had to use the bathroom. I had been feeling a little better and earlier in the day had even pulled luggage on my own. I told the kids we had to get the bags up the stairs. “Mommy, you can’t carry that bag,” Amelia insisted pointing to the enormous bag that comes up to my navel. “I’m going to have to. I really gotta pee,” I told her. I sent her up the stairs with the smaller bag. I grabbed the top of the big bag and told Aidan to get the bottom. “I can’t,” he said. “Yes, you can,” I assured him, “Just help a little.” Aidan and I got it half way up the stairs and then Amelia came and grabbed the side handle. And the three of us got that bag up the stairs. When we reached the top I was still breathing easily. And I looked down at those two little kids and I thought, “Wow, we’re a team.” Six weeks ago I wasn’t sure we’d be able to stay, but the four of us managed to pull together and make it work despite the challenges. We may never win any competitions but we may just pull each other though the only race that really matters.
When we found Bill, he looked at us oddly, “How’d you get the bag up the stairs?” He asked. “We did it together,” I replied with the kids beaming proudly. If nothing else, this trip has shown them how incredibly capable and self-reliant they can be. “Are you ok?” he asked, looking worried. “Yeah, I’m ok.” As we exited the station in search of someplace to spend the two hours until the next train I felt a glimmer of hope. Maybe things are bad, but not so bad. “I can pull that,” I said to Amelia grabbing the suitcase from her. I walked on, finally able to pull my weight, and I felt incredibly at peace.

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