Thursday, 13 February 2014

Passionate Kisses

You settle in to watch a movie. There is undeniable chemistry between two people on the screen. You are wondering where the attraction will lead, and you usually don't have long to wait. 

It progresses as follows: smoldering glances, sometimes sarcastic, clever dialogue, and then BOOM, an apartment door crashes open as the couple who just met burst into the room, kissing, groping, and ripping each other's clothes off in an unbridled display of passion as they bang into furniture, walk backwards, swirl around corners, all while keeping their lips locked on each other. They fall onto the bed, sofa, floor, table, or wherever, as the camera lovingly works its way along their nude, always perfect, often tattooed, bodies. The camera lingers on thrusting buttocks and faces contorted in ecstasy.

Any one with living loins will find this scenario titillating the first twenty or thirty times, but then, well, it starts to get a little old.  When you can anticipate how every passionate scene is going to go, when you roll your eyes as the door slams open, when you think to yourself "here we go again," then maybe these scenes are in danger of becoming hackneyed, formulaic.

These images may also set up unrealistic expectations for real couples getting to know each other.  Is there something wrong with the guy if he prefers a subtler approach, if the girl would rather undress slowly instead of tearing her blouse off? What if the first encounter is a little shy, maybe awkward?  Is there something wrong with them if their passion doesn't knock doors off their hinges?

Sometimes what is not seen, but imagined, is more romantic, while still getting the point across.

In honor of Valentine's Day, here are some films, or scenes from them, that illustrate this:

Sophia Loren and Cary Grant dancing to "Almost in Your Arms," in  Houseboat.

Grace Kelly and Cary Grant saying goodnight in To Catch a Thief.

Apollonia and Michael in The Godfather, Part I.

Anne Archer and Tommy Lee Jones dancing to "Time Slips Away" in Man of the House.

The dance scenes between Patrick Swayze (Johnny) and Jennifer Grey (Baby) in Dirty Dancing.

The Franco Zefferelli version of Romeo and Juliet.

Armand Assante and the character of Maria in The Mambo Kings.

James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Enough Said.

Spoiler alert: There are no broken door hinges, or even a tattoo.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Night Moves

You are tucked in bed with your book. You keep dozing off, but try to read a few more lines. The urge to sleep overwhelms you so you give up and turn off the light. You turn over and snuggle under the covers, ready for a good night's sleep. You have been reading about the importance of sleep and you are ready to comply.

Suddenly, your eyes pop open, your body is restless, and your mind is alert.

I know this sounds familiar to some of you.

Then begins what I call the night regrets. Somewhere between feeling sleepy and falling asleep, your brain decided to switch to the channel in which you remember every thing you have ever done wrong in your life. 

Years ago you were late arriving at your child's Brownie investiture. Why didn't you leave work a little earlier? Why did you take a particular path in life when another would have obviously been better? Shouldn't you have spent more time with that elderly relative? Why didn't you make that promised trip before she died? Why did you lose your temper over this or that? Should you have guided your child in this direction instead of that one? Should you have breastfed longer? Why were you so mean to that girl in the dorm? Why, why, why?

After going through a list of just some of your life's mistakes, you conclude you are a seriously flawed person, which doesn't help when you are trying to sleep.

Then you turn to night terrors, in which you imagine all the awful things that could happen in the future. You're beginning to see that aging isn't the glorious thing you read about in books with hopeful titles like, "The Joys of Growing Old." You worry about your parents, your kids, your friends. If you have one, you worry about your spouse, and you worry about yourself. What if you are alone, eating bread, and you choke?

By now you have thrown off the covers and gotten out of bed to turn off your brain.

When we were little, some of us saw monsters in the shadows of our bedrooms, or thought ghosts were hiding in the closet. A friend told me she was convinced the devil was under her bed and would grab her ankles if she got up.  Every creak in the heating system was something scary. Night lights, those little rays of light, helped calm our fears. 

Now the monsters are in our own brains, conjuring up ghosts from our past and future.  Maybe nights like this inspired Charles Dickens to write "A Christmas Carol."  

Short of waiting until daybreak, when the monsters disappear, what should one do to get some sleep? I've tried a night light but it keeps me awake worrying that I am disturbing my circadian rhythm, which might lead to all sorts of problems. 

When Sleepytime Tea and homeopathic sleep aids don't do the trick, there is always Ambien, which works, but you don't want to use it every night.

What else does the trick? The sound of weekend afternoon football on television never fails to make me sleepy. I've had some great naps then. Maybe I should have the games running on a permanent loop in our bedroom.  This might work, except my husband would be up watching them (again) and occasionally yelling out, "NO!" or shaking me awake to announce, "You're about to see the greatest play in football history."

Friday, 20 September 2013

I Don't Want to Know

Italian singer Adriano Celentano croons a tune called "I Want to Know" (Vorrei sapere), the lyrics of which state his desire over and over again: I want to know. I want to know.

There are some things I just don't want to know. Or see.

While driving in Washington, DC recently, I saw a man flossing his teeth as he crossed the street. I didn't need to see that.  It got me thinking, though, of all the things it would be better not to see or know.

Our favorite songs can be tainted by too much knowledge of the artist who sings or writes them.  It is hard to feel the love of Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight," "Layla," or "Forever Man," all written for Patti Boyd, when we know how badly he treated her once he won her from her husband, George Harrison.

I'm a big fan of the Rolling Stones, but the knowledge that Mick Jagger lobbied long and hard for a knighthood, is a notorious tightwad, social snob, and (as revealed by Keith Richard), has a "tiny todger," makes me hear his music differently than I did when ignorant of these things.  

It's tiresome to mention Miley Cyrus again, but the fact that she has a good voice will be forever overshadowed by the memory of her vulgar performance and that gray, over-sized tongue.  

The late writer Dominick Dunne once said he was aware Frank Sinatra had one of the best, most beautiful voices of a generation but "I can't stand the sound of it," because he knew the ugly side of Sinatra.

One can admire George C. Scott's brilliant film performances but admiration is lessened by the knowledge that he was a drunk who beat up Ava Gardner when they were together.

Did we really need to hear Michael Douglas say he contracted throat cancer from oral sex?  When you see him now, do you think of his fine acting performances or that over-sharing moment?  

Do we need to hear newly-in-love couples brag about their sex lives as if theirs is somehow unique and will not cool off a bit after they have seen each other floss their teeth a few times?  

Let me digress here to say I think even the most loving couples should keep a little mystery in their relationship, particularly when it comes to grooming habits.  There are some things we don't need to know or see.

I wish artists would see the wisdom in keeping a great deal of mystery about themselves. It  would make it so much easier to appreciate their art. We don't need to know what Matt Damon has to say about how Obama has let us down, do we? It interferes with his Bourne Identity. 

Unless we share their views, it is a risk for artists to share their political opinions. Clint Eastwood, a fine actor and film maker, is forever tainted in my mind by his ridiculous performance at the Republican National Convention, ranting at an empty chair.

In the small Italian village where we live a part of each year, I can imagine, but don't want to know, the politics of the people we encounter in the shops or caffes we frequent.  I'm sure some still admire Berlusconi or even Mussolini (the trains on time and all that), are racist, anti-immigrant, or generally have views that we don't share. 

I just don't want to know.  Non vorrei sapere.


Sunday, 26 May 2013


Spring is glorious in Tuscany, with blue iris and red poppies dotting the luscious green landscape,  thyme's pale lavender blossoms in the garden, and wisteria's purple pendulums swaying over the pergola.  I renewed my crush on the country this spring. 

Like most crushes, reality is different from the rosy way we see things at first. My crush came face-to-face with reality when I tried to pay our trash bill. That should have been easy enough, right?  

Instead, I experienced a combination of what could have inspired Fellini films, Dante's Inferno and Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  Come with me on this labyrinth journey:

1.  Before leaving for Italy I had received an email saying we had a trash bill at the local Comune (town hall).  It was agreed that I would take care of it when I arrived in early May.  

2.  I went to the Comune to pick up the bills from a vivacious blond I had not met before. She leapt from her desk, hugged me, and told me she had seen me on Facebook and wanted to be my friend. 

3.  She presented four years (!) of trash bills with explanations that were too complex for my Italian to understand. She assured me she could also speak French.  That didn't help me.  I explained I would bring an English-speaking Italian friend to translate so there would be no misunderstandings.  She reminded me that I had to pay by Thursday or there would be an interest charge. She also reminded me to friend her on Facebook.

4.  My English-speaking friend agreed to meet me at the Comune the next day to wade through the complexities. "Of course you don't understand, Christina. Italians don't understand, either,"  she said reassuringly.  We set an appointment for 9:30 am with the blond at the Comune.

5.  We arrived at the Comune at 9:30 am on the dot. The entrance was guarded by a young man who told us we could not go upstairs until 10 am. We told him we had an appointment  at 9:30 am. He told us he could not let us in until 10 am because that was the rule.  We gave up and went next door for a cappuccino.

6.  At 10 am, we were permitted upstairs at the Comune to meet the blond for our 9:30 appointment. She kissed me hardily on both cheeks and thanked me for friending her on Facebook. She asked if I had seen her comments. I told her I had. We agreed that she would write to me in English and I would write to her in Italian.

7.  The three of us proceeded to discuss IMU taxes, garbage charges, how far the trash cans are from our house, the commercialista to whom we pay various taxes, and other things that are basically incomprehensible to foreigners and, it turns out, Italians alike. I wanted to know why we had not received notice of these bills before. I was told they had been mailed out. To whom and where, I asked, not unreasonably. "No one knows," was the answer.

8.  Okay, just let me pay the bills, I said. After more discussion, in which we touched upon the fresh smell of my cologne, it was determined I could transfer payment from our bank to the Comune's.  My friend and I said farewell to the blond with more heartfelt embraces and reminders to write to her on Facebook. We made our way to the bank to resolve the matter once and for all.

9.  The bespectacled, round-faced bank cashier, who was unsmiling but accommodating, told us that since we are foreign residents, there would be a big transfer fee. It would be better, he said, to take the cash and pay it at the post office, where many Italian bills are paid. We agreed. Sounds easy, right?

10. The cashier discovered that our account was bloccato (blocked) because we had not yet signed the new anti-Mafia banking laws. Okay, let me sign it. No,  I could not sign it in our village because our account had been opened at another branch in a nearby town.  Note: they are branches of the same bank.

11. The cashier told me I should transfer our account to the local branch.  Note:  I asked to do this a year ago and was told it was not necessary because they are branches of the same bank.

12. My friend and I agreed to meet the next morning at the branch in the nearby town at 9:30 am to talk to the bank manager there. 

13. The branch bank manager was young, friendly, and rocking a  Buddy Holly look with a high pompadour and horn-rimmed glasses.  He was knowledgeable and accommodating.  He said we could easily transfer the funds from our account to that of the Comune for a tiny fee.  He said he would inform the cashier in our village that even though we are foreign residents, the transfer was within Italy so the fee was low. He told us the cashier didn't know these things because we are his only foreign clients.

14. When he found out to which bank we were making the transfer, he paused dramatically.  His pompadour stood more erect.  He would not recommend doing it.  Why?  Because it was not a "precise" bank. He worried that if we transferred the money we would not be fully credited with paying our bill.  He suggested we take the money from our account and pay at the post office, where we would receive receipts of payment.

15.  I signed the anti-Mafia document and our account was unblocked. Buddy Holly gave me the money and my friend and I walked to the local post office and paid the bill.

It took fifteen steps and three days, but our trash bill was finally current.

In retrospect, this incident is amusing.  It is the kind of story that charms foreigners who are there because they love the country but live most of their lives someplace else. Frances Mayes wrote often of such encounters in Under the Tuscan Sun.

Our Italian friends say this experience is the norm of life in Italy.  There are a few rules and regulations that can be creatively circumvented, but sometimes there is no way out of the labyrinth. You have to follow the rules, and hope the person enforcing them knows what s/he is doing.

Then let go of the frustration and go out and partake of all the things about the country you still cherish. Like the people you love, there are flaws but nothing you can't overlook because the pros outweigh the cons.

Friday, 8 February 2013

The Ambassador Scramble

It's the beginning of a new administration, which means there are a lot of people scrambling to secure an ambassadorial post. We were once one of them, so I can give you a firsthand account of how it plays out.

Ambassadors are chosen from three categories: 1) Foreign Service officers who are trained to represent the United States all over the world and hope to eventually be promoted to ambassadorial rank; 2) People who have raised big bucks for the president; and 3) Those who have worked on campaigns, in government, or other institutions relevant to the country or post they hope to be assigned to.

We fell into category three.

Many plum posts, like France, Italy, Great Britain, China, much to the rightful chagrin of highly trained Foreign Service officers, almost always go to the big bucks people. In all cases, though, the number two positions in the embassies are filled by Foreign Service officers. They guide the newly appointed ambassador and try to make sure he or she avoids a serious faux pas.  They usually, but not always, succeed.

If you are a contender for a post, the scramble to secure a position goes like this:

1. You will be asked for a list of what you want. This is not like applying for college where you have a "reach" and a "safety." They are all reaches. The competition is fierce. For example, I am told reliably that today in Los Angeles alone there are seventeen people who think they are entitled to an ambassadorial post.

2. You need to know someone in a position of power to send your name and choices to the State Department.

3. You will wait to hear something. And wait some more.  In the meantime, mysterious people will be vetting you. Make sure you paid your nanny's social security. Divest of anything that might be considered a conflict of interest. Hope that you have made no enemies in the State Department who are in a position to derail you.

4. If you are lucky, you will hear that your name and position have been cleared out of the State Department and sent to the White House.

5. You might wait for an interminable amount of time. Someone in White House personnel, whose name you will forget three months later, will become  the most important person in your world. Hope that you have no enemies in the WH who can derail you.

6. There will be moments when it looks like the whole thing is going down the drain. We were on track for a multilateral position in Vienna until we received a fateful call from our best friend in White House personnel. Things could go sideways for us. Why? Because "The Sound of Music" had just been shown on network TV, leading to "a new surge of interest in Austria."

I kid you not.

7. If you survive a serious threat like that, your name will clear the White House and be sent to the Senate for confirmation.

8. You will wait to be scheduled for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And wait some more.

9. Your hearing will take place. Hope that you have not made any enemies in the Senate who are in a position to derail you.

10. The Senate will vote to confirm you as ambassador. You breathe a sigh of relief.

What comes next is "ambassador school." More on that next time.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Arrivederci London

Tomorrow, after nineteen years abroad, twelve of them in London, we are going back home. We are excited about a new beginning and being physically close to our families and good friends, but endings are bittersweet. You look around at everything you took for granted and wonder if it is the last time you will ever see this or that, him or her.

Our years in London have been mostly enjoyable, but it has not been an easy relationship for me (see "A Foggy Decade," March 10, 2010). I know I will look back on our time here with fondness, though. We have been extraordinarily lucky to have lived in this vibrant city for so long.

Every day now people ask me, "What will you miss about London?" I should say I will miss the fabulous museums, venerable galleries, and access to wonderful theater. That's true, but they are not the first things that come to mind. These things do, one for every year, in no particular order:

1.  Black cabs and drivers who know where they are going.

2.  Being able to walk everywhere on streets full of imposing buildings in a city steeped in history. We haven't owned a car for 12 years.
3.  Marylebone High Street, which has everything you need on it.

4.   Frequent visits from our friend Simon via Eurostar from Brussels.
5.  Alyson, Jami, Justin and Marcy.
6.  British pageantry.

7.  Wonderful architecture and beautiful parks, especially Regent's Park. 

8.  Easy access to other European countries.
9.  Everyman Cinema on Baker Street. How many cinemas serve cappuccino, fresh cakes and wine as well as popcorn and Coca Cola in small glass bottles?
10. Waitrose grocery stores, the food hall at Marks and Spencer's on Oxford Street, and Boots pharmacy.
11. Hatchards and Daunt book stores.

12. Orange cake at the Orangerie on the grounds of Kensington Palace.

I have not had a great love affair with London or the UK, it's true. I have that with Italy, and I'm a one-country woman (though I've had a few flings with some cities). 

But London and I have had some good times together. My feelings about it are best summed up with the lyrics from a Emmylou Harris song: "No, it's not love, but it's not bad."

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Down the Chimney

It is olive-harvesting time in Tuscany, so we arrived at our place yesterday to observe the pickers and the pressing of new oil.  We like to come here at this time of year. The foliage is red and gold, the days are crisp, and the are nights cold, perfect for building a fire in the camino (chimney).

Anticipating that cozy picture, we began to prepare the hearth. We have learned the hard way to make sure the canna fumaria (flue) is open before lighting the kindling. Haven't we all experienced the moment, as smoke begins to form layers in the room and are eyes start to sting, when we realize the flue is still closed?

This flue usually opens easily by releasing a chain attached to the wall. We pulled. Nothing happened. We tugged. No movement. We jiggled the chain. Nada. I said if we worked on it we could surely coax the thing to open. Then we noticed a small pile of dirt at the back of the hearth. Were our eyes playing tricks or was that pile of dirt moving?

I've posted before about the learning curve of city people like us having to deal with creatures encountered in the country (wild boars, snakes). We are used to the occasional sound of pine martens on the tile roof at night, when it seems like a roomful of furniture is being  moved above our heads. We recognize pheasants strolling along the road. I used to scream upon sight of a tiny bat outside in the twilight hours, but once assured they were not vampires, I now barely notice them.  We were not prepared, however, for what we discovered in the hearth.

NOTE:  If you are squeamish you should skip over the next part.

Our eyes were not playing tricks. The little collection of dirt was teeming with tiny white larvae.  You could call them larvae if want to shield yourself from the truth, but I think they were, dare I say it aloud? Maggots. The larvae of flies.  John was stoic. I screamed. Then gagged.

We shoveled them into a heavy plastic bag, sealed it and took it outside. Then we sprayed the hearth and sealed it off. I sent an emergency text to Ivo, our savior who looks after the property.

If anyone tells you that Italian workers are unreliable about showing up or repairing things, let us talk to them. Ivo arrived bright and early this morning with a team of workers who are coincidentally constructing a new fence for us. All of their energies were focused, however, on the stuck chimney flue and why there had been live larvae in our hearth.

Since we had not built a fire in the hearth for one year, they surmised that a dead bird may have been trapped in the chimney. Thus the larvae. They also thought there might be a nest on top of the flue.  They did not find any dead animals, but they did find a nest as big as a briefcase. Calabroni (hornets). Huge ones.

They sprayed it with insecticide and then used the flexible chimney equivalent of a roto-rooter that pushed the nest down the chimney. Fortunately, the hearth was well-sealed in plastic because in releasing the nest, they also released hundreds of gassed hornets, all trying to get out. We watched in horrified fascination. Eventually they all died.

The workers cleaned up the mess and went back to building the fence.

We built a fire and speculated that if we had persisted in our efforts to open the flue last night, we might   not have lived to tell the story. We learned that if one hornet is attacked, it emits a chemical that signals to all the others in the nest to attack. While we might have survived the bite of a few hornets, the swarms that would have descended on us might have been too much to survive.

We're looking it as just another chapter in our never-ending country education.