Category Archives: expat life

100th tour de france kicks off in corsica

In honor of today’s start of the 100th Tour de France on the Mediterranean island of Corsica – I am reposting my last feature on this beautiful and favorite island of mine.  Enjoy! – BTH

A trip most memorable was when our daughter was three months old, we were living in Italy and we took our first family vacation to the beautiful and natural island of Corsica.

We (and our car) hopped a traghetto from Savona, Italy to Bastia on the island of Corsica, France. (Today’s Tour de France stage begins in Bastia.)

Heart pajamas were a good choice that day, as they smoothed an unfortunate and unnecessary encounter with police at a routine traffic stop on our drive down, due to a mix up with our car maintenance papers. (Even armed Italian policemen won’t resist a cute baby.)

We loved Bastia, with its surprisingly urban city feeling on an otherwise natural island. There we got a great feel for the unique Corsican character which is sprinkled with a little Italian and a little French, due to a history involving both countries. Corsica was under Genovese rule until  1729 when the Corsicans revolted and enjoyed independence for a short 40-year period, later ceding to France in  1769 . They still have an uneasy relationship with mainland France and Bastia has been the target of bomb explosions by Corsican militants.

Ferries arrive to Bastia’s port – the 100th Tour de France kicks off in Bastia today.

We drove down the Eastern coast of the island to Santa Giulia. There, at the recommendation of friends, we rented a villa at Les Toits de Santa Giulia  and every morning went for a swim in the nearby bay.  The beaches there and nearby were beautiful in  September, and the sparkling water and red rock formations were breathtaking.

the bay of Santa Giulia

La plage de Palombaggia was the most unforgettable beach (and likely the coolest place I’ve nursed a baby.)

the beach and beautiful red rock formations at Palombaggia

The nearest town, Porto Vecchio, offered a delicious bakery and creperie, just in time to remind us we were in France, as it’s easy to forget with so many reminders of Italy. Porto Vecchio has always been a “remember when?” moment, when we purchased a much too expensive International Herald Tribune to satiate my english language news craving, and driving off, watched each of its pages fly off the top of the car, where I had left it. (I blamed it on new mom mushy brain).

A highlight was the drive down to Bonifacio, at the southern most point of the island.

Citadel and cliffs of Bonifacio

The reconstructed and renovated citadel was originally built in the 9th century along with the foundation of the city. Bonifacio is known for its chalk-white limestone, sculpted in unusual shapes by the ocean. Not a stroller-friendly town, baby was put in the carrier and we explored this town on foot. Standing on the cliffs, we could see Sardegna.

white limestone cliffs of bonifacio with sardegna in the distance

This year we won’t make it back to Corsica, but we are researching islands not far from it, closer to the Italian coast and in the Tuscan archipelago. Whatever the weather when we arrive, my first order of business will be to jump in and take a swim in my most favorite sea of all.

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i dolomiti

The Dolomites, or i Dolomiti in Italian, the breathtaking mountain range in the Trentino – Alto Adige region of northeastern Italy, is  one of my favorite places to visit. While not what most North Americans expect in Italy, this region feels most certainly its geographic position on the crossroads of Italy and Austria. When we lived nearby at Lago di Garda, we took day trips to Trento or weekends up to Bolzano. We hiked near Canazei and took in the panorama of the alps at the Sass Pordoi.

I have sentimental reasons for loving this place too. My favorite wine of the Dolomites is maker Mezzacorona .  I like their white wines, particularly their Pinot Grigio which I can find in my local market in Northern California. If you are in the area, take their informative – and fun – wine tour where you can learn about winemaking in the region, and have the opportunity to taste a wide range of their quality wines. The facility is modern and artistic.

In fact, it was this entertaining  wine tasting experience at Mezzacorona followed by a carpaccio dinner in the nearby city of Trento, that has become a memorable family story. (I found out the next day I was four weeks pregnant with our daughter. I can assure you that sparkling wine and raw meat didn’t harm her!).

Trento is never far from my heart and mind. My wedding band is from Trento’s historic city center by a  jeweler founded in 1872, Gioielleria D. Cortelletti.

Trento

During the winter Trento has some of the best known and beloved Christmas street markets. We especially loved to visit during this time. There we found a wide variety of sausages (like what you’d typically find in Germany or Austria) and delicious soup mixes for sale.

Bolzano farther north, was well worth the extra time in the car to visit. Its mediaeval city center, churches and castles – and mix of Italian and Austrian influence -give the city a unique flavor.

Bolzano

One of our all-time favorite trips was staying at an inn at Cortina d’Ampezzo near Canazei – long known as a winter sports center – in the northern region of Alto-Adige and hiking the upper part of Val di Fassa.

Cortina d’Ampezzo

We visited off season and hiked in unbelievably remote and beautiful parts. We rested our feet at an outdoor cafe clinging to the edge of a mountain. We took the funivia (cable car) to the unforgettable Sass Pordoi, called the terrazza or terrace of the Dolomites , at 2,950 meters. (We purchased jackets from a wise man selling them before our ascent.) It has one of the most spectacular panoramas of the alps!

At almost 3,000 meters at sass pordoi overlooking the alps.

The Trentino – Alto Adige region of Italy – its people, food and culture – may not remind you of the Italy you are accustomed to visiting or hearing about – but it is well worth adding to your itinerary. In fact, it couldn’t be more what Italy truly is, a mix of diverse cultures and history.

ave maria di lourdes

I’m convinced that you can relive memories through your senses more accurately than flipping through a photo album.

When our kids are asked what they remember most about our summer trip to Italy, they often say the taste of rich gelato. More recently, my daughter mentions the memory and sound of bells chiming from church towers.

I know exactly what day she is remembering. We were staying in the hills just south of Florence taking a walk overlooking the olive trees surrounding our apartment.

A nearby church tower began chiming. Then another joined in from farther away. And another. They played off each other and continued for a good five or ten minutes. The bell chimes bounced off the distant hills and filled the air. This chorus of bells against a backdrop of silence stopped us in our tracks as we listened. When my husband and I lived in Italy, the sounds of church bells were an everyday occurrence – we hardly noticed some days. But on that day it was a beautiful and memorable shared experience between mother and daughter.

My daughter’s memory reminds me that I do miss the church bells. I don’t hear them at home. When we lived in Italy,  the local town church chimed an unfogettable and beautiful song only on Sundays. So over the years, I’d often sit on our balcony high up on the hill and listen. I knew I could count on hearing it each week. My mother recognized the song as “Ave Maria di Lourdes” because she listened to it as a child growing up in Germany. To confirm it was the song, I found a version on youtube.  Take a listen and perhaps it will take you back to a country or time that is special to you.

la bella lingua

One of the best things about being back in Italy was speaking Italian again. Like riding a bicycle, words we haven’t spoken in years were plucked up from somewhere deep down, and we found ourselves effortlessly communicating again in our adopted language at dinner parties, restaurants and other countless conversations with old friends. My Italian isn’t too sophisticated –  I often take the easy road by constructing  sentences around the easier grammar tenses while my husband is much braver – but it was back. Using the formal Lei without a missed beat. Extending long greetings when you say goodbye to someone. Buon Giorno, salve, ciao, ci vediamo, grazie a lei, arriverderci, a  domani!  Getting in a heated argument- which feels even better in Italian – at the best place for a fight, a ticket booth line at an Italian train station. The Italian language is old, complicated, challenging, and different depending where in Italy you are  – but pays off as the most beautiful, expressive and delightful language to speak.

Confirming my love for the Italian language, I just finished “La Bella Lingua” by Dianne Hales.

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head…You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” – La Bella Lingua

  Right before our trip, I picked this book up at our local bookstore with the intimate knowledge that it’s always a gamble when choosing a novel from the travel section. But this is the real deal.

Ms. Hales has done her homework (and more). The book is a love story to the Italian language, providing anecdotes through her experiences living and traveling in Italy and pursuits in studying the language. Her über thorough research reveals interesting and little known aspects of Italy’s history, literature and culture, and demonstrates how several key Italians and scholarly groups – past and present – have contributed to helping the language develop and survive.  This book has inspired me to search at the local library for “The Divine Comedy” (or “Divina Commedia”)  by Dante Aligheri,  any film by De Sica, and the opera Madama Butterfly (which I was surprised to learn  opened in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala and bombed, then reopened in Brescia,  where we lived for several years, to then triumph in Paris and around the world!) 

Hales makes the point that while a unified Italy is fairly new, the Italian language  – which has served as  the great unifier – is very old. The 14th century dialect of Florence – the language of Dante Aligheri himself – is little changed and what is taught and spoken in Italy today.  English may be the language everyone needs to know, Hales writes, but Italian is the language people want to learn. With only 60 – 63 million native speakers Italian barely eclipses Urdu, Pakistan’s official language for 19th place as a spoken tongue. Yet Italian ranks fourth among the world’s most studied language. (Only four countries other than Italy recognize Italian as an official language.) The soaring popularity of the language is hardly surprising, she writes, with its exported food, fashion, art, architecture, music and culture … and I’ll add, Italian boyfriends.

For lovers of Italian – those of us who have lived or traveled to Italy and keep going back, who are fascinated with Italy’s history and culture and protagonists, and consider ourselves lifelong students of Italian,  “La Bella Lingua” shares our passion and provides a new perspective and adventure through the world’s most enchanting language.

Next up: My favorite study Italian abroad schools in Italy

rereading paris to the moon

Today I attended a university-sponsored lecture by The New Yorker staff writer, author, culture commentator and fellow ex-expat Adam Gopnik. From 1995 – 2000 Gopnik lived in Paris with his wife and son. During his time there, he wrote “Paris to the Moon”. I’ve included  him in past posts about favorite authors and books.

 

Mr. Gopnik gave a talk on food and his latest book, “The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food.” 

The book explores the history, evolution and culture of  food. A packed room of foodies gathered near the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science  to hear Gopnik discuss the book and what factors determine taste, like the relationship between taste and frame of mind and taste and social identity, or rather what he calls mouth versus moral taste (what does the organic carrot I’m buying tell you about me?). He suggests we see the irony and have the ability to laugh at ourselves about our tastes – which he easily does –  while at the same time have the confidence to recognize the pleasure and role it provides in our lives. None other than Ms. Margrit Mondavi provided his introduction. While I appreciate his intellectual curiousity on this subject, it’s taking me a bit to finish “The Table Comes First” so I will reserve my comments until later.

The real reason I wanted to hear Gopnik speak today is because I so enjoyed “Paris to the Moon” and “Through the Children’s Gate”  about his time living abroad in Paris and his repatriation to New York City.

So prior to attending the lecture, I flipped through my old copy of “Paris to the Moon” to remember exactly why this book and this author have stuck with me for so long (and why all of you expats, ex-expats and lovers of Paris should read Gopnik if you haven’t yet).

“Paris to the Moon” is written in a series of intelligent personal essays, at times knee-slapping hilarious and other times very tender.  (Not an “Almost French”, “Bringing Up Bébé”  or “Under the Tuscan Sun”.)  In the book, Gopnik describes his experience living abroad  –  the “New York-style” Parisian gym,  the separateness of the expat family unit , Christmas tree shopping, a father/son baseball bedtime story ritual, and a particularly funny exchange between heavily accented American father (Gopnik “as comic immigrant”) and son’s teacher (“with son shuddering at father’s words and father inadvertently shaming the ‘immigrant child’.”)

My favorite “Paris to the Moon” quotes include:

“There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see and sees it, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more.”

“It’s true that you can’t run away from yourself. But we were right: you can run away.”

“Family life is by its nature cocooned, and expatriate family life is doubly so.”

“Barney is Bill Clinton for 3 -year -olds.”

“The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.”

And finally a quote by his wife that I’ve repeated since returning home:

“We had a beautiful existence in Paris, but not a full life,” Martha said, summing it up, “and in New York we have a full life and an unbeautiful existence.”

streaming italian

We’re going back to Italy for the first time since we moved back. And I’m determined not to slip into English when we are there. But the reality is that after speaking Italian daily during my three years living there, it’s been many more years since I’ve been back in the States with few opportunities to keep it up. Time to dust off my Italian dictionary.

Or not?

I’ve  looked for better opportunities to keep it up. I speak with my Italian friends in town, but their English is so good, we end up slipping back into it in a matter of minutes. We forked out extra money for satellite connection to RAI Italian television but the cost kept going up, and we dropped it.The Italian language course through the local adult school is geared towards “travel Italian”, and I don’t feel I quite fit in. Having lived in Italy , I’m not exactly an Italian travel enthusiast, although I enthusiastically travel Italy. I’ve crossed over that never-to-return fence into Italian residency, and feel a sort of fake surrounded by American Chianti tasters and Tuscany villa renters, attending conversation classes and wine tasting nights with rose-colored glasses on. I could just see myself show up and blurt out real-life horror stories as I kill their dreams of happy, helpful, pasta-eating Italians.  

But I have now found a wonderful outlet to get the Italian flowing again. Italian streaming radio. I even found a talk show on Milan’s Radio DeeJay with a host that has the accent from the area we lived. It’s like being back. While my spoken Italian is not getting much practice, my comprehension is  fine tuned. I understand almost everything. I’m getting ready.

For fellow expats returned home, European travel and language lovers and those just curious, here are several online resources to get you started streaming European radio live to your house or Ipod.

Listen Live EU

Tune In

Live Radio.net

on my bookshelf

In the past year since I’ve started blogging, I’ve posted about my favorite books that will take you places and provided book suggestions to discover Paris expat life of the 1920s. The latter is one of my most widely read posts, thanks to the 2011 published “The Paris Wife” that has brought Hemingway renewed popularity (well deserved, in my opinion) and what appears by my blog statistics to be a mob of readers with an intense interest in his first “Paris Wife” Hadley.

As I take a breath from my fixation on the Lost Generation, and I reluctantly return to the library the completed biographies  “Hemingway’s Boat” , and several on Gerald and Sara Murphy, I  turn my eyes up to the bookshelf to ponder what will next fancy an expat, ex-expat or version of.

My top three picks are:

The Expats by Chris Pavone

The first time this title appeared in The NY Times Book Review, I thought it was an espionage thriller, which really isn’t my thing and I passed.  But then the title reappeared by email from my sister (“read it!” she wrote).  I noticed it was set in curious Luxembourg ( a place our dear friends lived, so I know it without actually having been there) and is much more about the experience of expat life than I originally thought. In this first novel by Pavone, a husband and wife have the opportunity to move to Luxembourg when husband gets a new job. She, a burned out ex-CIA operative who has left her job, finds herself disoriented, embracing a new identity in a community of expat wives and mothers organizing domestic chores and finding ways to entertain themselves.  The plot turns, when wife becomes suspicious of husband and his new hush-hush job and she begins to investigate him. Expat experiences, a fantastic setting and sprinkles of espionage fiction. And with a name like that, what’s there not to love?

Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman

Being a mother and having had my first child abroad in Europe, this book about an expat American mom raising her kids in France finds its way easily onto my reading list. I posted recently about this book which outlines differences in parenting she sees between France and the States – particularly those areas she believes parents excel with in France. She’s predictably gotten loads of criticism from all sides, but I’m interested in reading the book because of the cultural differences I, too, experienced when abroad,  not necessarily to find the secret french formula to teach my kids manners or sit at the table through dinner (though I imagine many young mothers will be doing the latter as witnessed by the length of the wait list at the library for this book).

I doubt this author will meet the standard set by Adam  Gopnik’s “Paris to the Moon” about parenting in Paris that shines with his intellect and New Yorker-style wit as he manages to wrap together brilliantly multiple subjects and observations of life and food and kids in Paris. But I look forward to another opportunity to slip in  – unseen –  to a family room in Paris through this book.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Another first book for this author and reviewed as “very funny” by the New Yorker, today’s essay in The NY Times Book Review by Gary Sernovitz somewhat convincingly draws comparisons and contrasts between this book and Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.” While the book apparently makes no mention of this, the essay explores the differences between the inner struggles of the lost generation during the 1920s and the generation of today (you see, I couldn’t stay away from Hemingway for too long.)

In what The NY Times Book Review describes  “a precise, reflective and darkly comic voice” and “a revealing study of what it’s like to be a young American abroad”, the main character, an aimless but intelligent and earnest poet, has bluffed his way to Spain and struggles with the idea to live authentically and capture and represent life truthfully (in foreign and native tongue)  “beyond snapshots of localized events”.  “A book soaked in references to art and literature”, it features the American far from home, alienated, in search of meaning…..while making it clear that “a gulf separates their (referring to Hemingway’s characters in “Sun” and the character in this book) experiences and point of view.” I’m looking forward to reading about a lost generation of today, which could be more lost than ever before.