Thursday, September 28, 2006

Italian bureaucracy - parte due

When she picked up the single piece of paper and held it up, turned it around, and examined it as if it was foreign matter, I knew I was in the presence of a professional. When she sent us off to get the extra, “surprise” photos – not published in the official pre-requisites – and did not tell us about the required franco bolo (official stamp, which we didn’t have, of course) until we returned once again, I acknowledged that I had underestimated her: I was dealing with a true master. And her cool, calm, trance-like demeanour, patently oblivious to the struggle raging on the other side of the glass divide, rendered her the quintessence itself – bureaucracy in its purest form.

The residency permit, or permesso di soggiorno, is a somewhat crucial document in order for us to stay in Italy legally. Maria, an EU citizen, successfully applied for hers a year ago, but they wouldn’t give me mine at the time because our wedding certificate was not in Italian. With the translation duly in hand, last week I went to get mine.

Now, last time we went to the immigration office, it was a breeze – very few people, little to no waiting, and no sense of disorganization at all. Turns out we went at a time reserved for EU citizens. Being a US/SA national, I had to go in the non-EU citizen time slot. And what a difference.

“Bun fight” is the first term that springs to mind. “Chaos” is another. Bruno Bozzetto ( does a caricature of Italians queues, and it seems the free-for-all phenomenon he depicts infects everyone that steps within the country’s borders – Indians, Moroccans, Russians, Slavs, and who knows what else squeezing, pushing, edging in a shapeless mass, like iron filings around a magnetized pole, in a zealous surge to reach a singular, common goal – the counter window, and the clerk behind it.

On reflection, all this crazy effort seems entirely counter-intuitive, given what each aspiring resident is striving for – to speak with a bureaucrat. Somehow it reminds me of a moth fluttering around a flame, constantly drawn in until – zap! – suddenly it’s all over, and there’s just a pile of ashes left behind.

So there we are, future ash piles all of us, driving towards the flame. Once you get there, there’s a 50% chance you’ll having everything you need. Some of the missing pieces you can get in short order, and return … but not to the front of the queue. You join once again at the back, and you have to go through the whole bun fight again.

The clerks behind their glass protectors are singularly unmoved by the chaos happening on “the other side”. Their eyes drift calmly across the swarm of sweating faces and hands thrusting reams of paper at them, each of them desperately hoping that they’ll be chosen. Because if they’re not, it’s going to be another 20 minutes – at least – before the clerk will be ready to select their next victim.

We had to go through this 3 times. First, I didn’t have photographs. There is a photo machine on the premises, but it requires exact change, and most patrons can barely put together the €5, let alone the right change for it. I must have asked 15 people for change, without success. Maria scored gold on her first try.

So off I go to get the photos, returning just as Maria gets to the counter. All’s going well until we find out I need 6 photos, not four. Off again, this time to return as a combatant without rights, just like everybody else. Almost through, and then she (the same clerk) informs us we need a €14.62 franco bolo, available at most tabacchii. We didn’t have one.

Interestingly, this information was available to her when she sent us off to get the photographs. But she failed to avail us of it. I’m not convinced her omission was accidental, but I’m also not sure it was conscious. Bureaucracy, it seems, sustains itself through its inefficiencies and the ultimate capitulation of its victims – you endure because you have to, taking so many whippings in the process as to ultimately be at the mercy of the system. The clerks themselves are part of the system, perhaps even unaware of their own role in sustaining it. Brilliant, when you think about it.

So off we go again again, this time off the premises. The first tabacchi didn’t have any franco bolo left (of course), so we had to go to another. Back into the fray.

Within sight of the finishing post once more, and this time Maria contrives to contribute to the mix, asking about Julius’ residency, and confusing the matter by saying he’s German and producing an American passport. This, naturally, drew their attention away from that final staple and paper clip that would seal the deal, to become engrossed in a discussion with each other about the procedures in such a case. To my relief, they eventually get back to my application, but the distraction has cost me several places in the next queue I’m destined for – mug shot, fingerprints, vital statistics, etc. It probably cost me an hour, but we did get Julius’ residency after all.

This last wait gave me the opportunity to catch up on some reading – I’m no fool, I come prepared – and also to watch bureaucracy in action. The whole system, it appears, is controlled by paper. I use this term as if the paper itself has a presence, an existence, such is the respect and submission of the clerks to those thin, square-edged power-mongers. They seem mesmerized when they pick up single pieces of paper, studying them as if they’ve never seen such a thing – a piece of paper on its own, how can it be? – only to snap into their automaton characters when the single sheafs finally find mates, and are bonded together with a staple or a paper clip. It’s almost as if the clerks get into a trance when they get the feel of multiple pages in a stack – forms, transcriptions, photos, photocopies – moving through the motions, reaching for the stapler, the stamp, the pile of paper clips, slapping the package onto another pile in the application’s journey through the warren of halls that sustain this bureaucracy. This is their world.

It’s also somewhat puzzling (although it shouldn’t be) that two of the tools of their trade – stapler and stamp – are almost always misplaced when they’re looking for them. To start with, there was only one stamp between 3 clerks – how this doesn’t launch them into fits of insecurity is beyond me. They also have a habit of passing you new forms to fill out, and then not giving you a pen, leaving you to the whims of your surrounding foreigners to yield up theirs.

When I finally got out of there, there was one other applicant left, waiting to get fingerprinted. The clerks had gone to lunch, and it felt serene and calm, showing no signs or scars of the morning’s struggles. As I walked out, I could almost feel the building sigh with relief.

Julius - my hero

[Written on September 25th]

I’m so proud of my son. This is not just your common garden variety parent pride, there’s a third party element of independent awe involved here as well.

Julius, as prior blog postings have attested, has always been as highly apprehensive about the language component of moving to Italy as he has been enthusiastic about the gastronomic rewards. This to the point of making an articulate case of staying in Germany, on the eve of their departure from Maria’s parents’ home for Marche. It manifested itself on arrival in his steadfast refusal to go anywhere, mortally afraid that someone might actually talk to him, and – heaven forbid – expect an answer.

So when we dropped him off for his first day of school in Tolentino, we were both aching for him, wishing to be there next to him all day to make sure he was OK. Not only was it a positively rude deposit into the deep end of Italian life, but it was also longer than he’s used to – 8:30 to 4:30, a full 1½ hours longer than in the US. The class wasn’t too big – 16 I think – but none of his classmates spoke English, and only one of his two teachers (the afternoon one, I believe).

Of course he made it through the day, and the week, making friends along the way. Once he realized his Englishness wasn’t viewed as a disease, and that people actually liked him in spite of the communication difficulties, he was fine, although perhaps a little concerned about his ability to keep up academically with his peers.

What appalled us, however, particularly with our Waldorf experiences, was the fact that the kids never went outside all day. Not even for a minute. Lunch break was spent eating lunch, of course – a very important daily event in Italy; they even have chefs on the school staff – while their other rest period was spent playing in the gymnasium.

So we decided to consider other options:

- Tolentino has a half-day alternative, which would give the afternoon at home for outdoor activity, but it involved Saturday school, and would eat into our weekend explorations

- Urbisaglia, a small town nearby, has whole and half-day possibilities, but we weren’t sure the clipped, drill-sergeant-like teacher (in a nice way) would be Julius’ cup of tea

- Colmurano, the nearest village to us, with only a whole-day program, welcomed us with open arms; they spend more time outdoors, and have a Jack Smith from Ireland amongst only 5 students in the fifth grade

So we switched. To Colmurano, of course, although it wasn’t quite as obvious as it seems.

Having spent a morning at the Colmurano school “test driving” it, Julius couldn’t decide, since he’d already made friends in Tolentino. And if he didn’t get on with the other 2 boys in the smaller fifth grade class (girls being second-class citizens, of course), what then? So Maria and I made an executive decision, giving a vote of confidence to Julius & the two boys in Colmurano’s fifth grade class.

He’s just finished his first week there, and is thriving. Everyone waves when we drive through the village – not at us, but at Julius – and his confidence has grown. He’s singing around the house (and caravan), and has even started throwing out Italian replies when questioned by locals. On the weekend he had a play date at Jack Smith’s house, and Maria and I spent the entire afternoon there as well, talking with Jack’s friendly, interesting and inspiring mom, Amanda.

In short, Julius is happy. We’re hugely thankful. I think this experience will be invaluable in building his self-confidence, and will be a major reference-point for him in his early life.

Another side benefit of the Colmurano switch is the activity that surrounds the school drop-off and pick-up. It’s a veritable social gathering, an opportunity to catch up, make arrangements, and find out everything that’s going on. It’s an event, and I think the parents actually look forward to it.

On another score, Julius has also developed a rather zealous loyalty to our Regnano home, becoming particularly defensive when we look at and talk about other properties. I’ve also turned the corner in this respect, and, like Julius, am now totally committed to renovating our place into a charming and engaging expression of ourselves. Even Mr Young has settled in to his new home, and is as chatty as he ever was. Now if only Maria…

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Regnano pictures

In response to a few requests, some visuals of our area.

Regnano - yes, just about all of it, save for 4 or 5 houses behind the church. Our house circled.

View east of Colmurano on a clear day.

View east of Colmurano on a (you guessed it) misty day.

The maestro in his chamber.

Catching some culture in the barn.

Looking south.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Container travails

[Written on Friday, September 15th]

Remember the container that broke this real man back at the end of July? Well, its story continues.

It found its way uneventfully, it seems, to Naples. Perhaps not surprisingly in this “colourful” city with a storied past, things started going awry. Having arrived on the 18th August, neither Maria nor I were notified that the Italian agent (Alpha International) were waiting for the appropriate documents to clear the container through customs, this in spite of the fact that I told the US mover (that we paid), Rainier, based in Oregon, to contact me in Chapel Hill until I gave them Maria’s telephone number (email being an unlikely option for her given its paucity and unreliability in the area of Regnano).

Having communicated the telephone number to Rainier on the 21st, I also asked about the due date for the container’s arrival, blissfully ignorant that it was already there. Rainier failed to answer my query, and so I counseled Maria to contact the Italian agent handling it. After struggling to find a company name buried amongst many in a plethora of emails, and then having to call several numbers to finally find the right one – all along with no help from Rainier – she finally got through, learned of the documents to send, and duly did so on the 28th. What she was also required to do, however, was send them a cheque for over €4,000, which she did in an induced state of following instructions rather than her normal questioning mode.

Two weeks later, we still hadn’t heard anything, so we called Alpha, only to find that our container had been selected randomly for “special inspection” by customs, involving further delay and, unbeknown to us, further cost. Believe it or not, no-one had thought to notify us. Alpha said they would call us back the following week to let us know of progress. Guess what? They didn’t. (As it turns out, thankfully, the “special inspection” yielded nothing.)

We only learned of the container’s status when, after 2 days of trying, we got access to the internet, and received an email – in spite of our explicit instructions to call, not email – saying they were waiting for us to pay demurrage and delay fees of nearly €1,400. Needless to say, I was shaking with anger, and promptly dispatched a seething email to Rainier, who was involved in a pissing match with the Italian agent. We were in the middle, and bearing the brunt of it. I asked Rainier to call us to discuss the issue. Guess what? He didn’t.

Turns out Rainier, who I’d paid back in August, told the Italian agent to demand COD in order to clear the container and get it delivered to us. So we paid twice. While Rainier continues to ignore my question on what this €4,000 was for, Alpha – who was operating under Rainier’s instructions – has agreed that it needs to be refunded to us, and so is helping to facilitate it.

In addition, Alpha was prepared to share the demurrage/delay cost with us, even though we don’t understand why we are responsible for any of it. But at €680 (instead of €1,380), I’m willing to pay to play. Maria isn’t, and continues to fight the good fight.

Having agreed to pay the €680, Alpha said that our container would be delivered today late morning. It’s now early afternoon, and we haven’t heard anything. Needless to say, we’re shocked…

Life according to Mr Young

Mr Young’s not happy. Generally when the head of a household is not happy, everyone else pays for it. However, it seems that in crossing the pond, or at least since arriving in Marche, Mr Young has abdicated his regal role and has become a subject. And a rather nervous one at that. In fact, if I didn’t know of his prior feats of bravado (catching mice and birds, staring down another cat in our garden from behind the living room window, etc), I might be tempted to use the word “paff”. However, he – like his 10-year-old owner – is an extremely good-natured, friendly, non-aggressive animal, and for those qualities that label is undeserved.

It appears, though, from his point of view, that he’s wandered – or been led (by us) – into a hornet’s nest. Every sound or move is treated as a life-threatening monster, and – eyes wide and ears flat – he freezes, waiting for the pounce or the swoop or the on-rush that he’s convinced is coming, and when it doesn’t, he scuttles back hurriedly into the security of the caravan.

It seems, on the one hand, that his master’s protectiveness might have something to do with it. During the night (his normal witching hours), Mr Young is confined to the caravan, including – for the first week – the performance of his ablutions until mom put her foot down, the air proving a little too rank for sleeping as a result. Upon my arrival, my attempts at liberating him after sunset from his caravan prison were met by wailing and resistance, to the point that I was forced to choose between my son’s contentment and our cat’s. With persistence, however, Julius’ rigidity on this score has loosened up, and so – not coincidentally – has Mr Young. In a fit of being himself yesterday, he was seen climbing to the top of the willow tree (the first time he’s climbed a tree since arriving here), and haring around and growling like a loco, just as if he was back in his Chapel Hill milieu.

As much as Julius’ own behaviour might have influenced Mr Young’s, it is, after all, an entirely new environment. Apart from the obvious (i.e. Italy), this means farmland, where the sights, sounds, smells, and creatures are all brand new. Julius’ protectiveness stems from the presence of wild boar in the area, which, while dangerous if confronted, are seldom seen.

But there are also farm dogs – free range, as it were, and rather more “coarse” than the suburban variety – as well as cats, some of them wild. One of them – a cute, silver-grey one – appears to have been inhabiting our house, and is no doubt puzzled at the invasion of his territory. While he (or she) doesn’t seem to be aggressive, Mr Young has encountered him, and clearly recognizes that he’s in someone else’s domain.

And as I delve into the psychology of Mr Young’s angst, I reflect how little we know of the rules of the animal world, as we summarily ignore them and stumble over established boundaries, creating conflict as we do. I’m reminded of an arrogant superpower imposing its will and its rule on nations that it doesn’t understand (although in our defence I think we’re ignorant rather than arrogant, and caring rather than callous).

Naturally, though, our allegiance is to our benevolent ruler (Mr Young), who we’d clearly like to see regain his throne. I’d therefore better run now to make sure that the sound of the boiling kettle that I hear has now caused him to break out in hives…

September's executioner

With a slow, deliberate motion, and a steady, grinding noise, the executioner moves through its victims, row upon row of bowed heads, cloaked in a somber dark brown in their final hour, waiting for their turn at the blade. When he’s done, all that remains is an eerie mass of decapitated stick torsos, still standing where once they stood tall and blazing yellow in the blue skies of summer.

It’s September, the month when things begin to turn. Summer is over, the beaches are emptying, the schools are filling, the weather is changing, and it’s harvest time. Where we are, that means sunflowers. For two years running, my only exposure to this quintessential crop of the rolling Italian countryside has been in the latter stages of its growth cycle, when they are bent over and black. The hillsides seem like large gatherings of monks in earnest praying posture. One day they’re there, silent in their solemn ranks, and the next they’re gone, just white stalks – thousands of them – remaining where they once stood.

In our garden, it also means a fig tree that’s alive – fruit ripening and rotting, and a constant buzz in its branches from the ample population of flies that’s attracted to such a rank feast. The small, hard apples are also starting to fall, tear-inducing in their crisp sourness. And if there’s standing room only for the flies on the fig tree, they have two grape vines to choose from – one white, one red.

In Marche, you can smell the change of the seasons.

It also seems to be a signal for the night air to start nipping. While this is in reality a welcome change, so sudden was the switch that it caught us by surprise the other night, leaving Julius and I shivering through the wee hours and sleepless in the morning.

However, the days are still warm, and the flies are still here, buzzing constantly. So persistent and numerous are they that I’m beginning to wonder if – in defiance of the cycle of nature – they ever get harvested…

At last - a first-hand full-family report

[Written around September 13th]

So how exactly is life in Italy? Well, perhaps not quite the wine and roses existence that a romantic might conjure. At least not for us, not now. We’re camping. Here’s how it looks.

We live in a caravan, which has two narrow beds and one double-size bed. Julius & I share the double-size bed, Maria sleeps on one of the singles. Maria is the only one with a duvet (comforter) – Julius and I wrestle during the night for the hodge-podge of sheets that we use for cover. So far I haven’t had an 8-hour night’s sleep, but I wouldn’t necessarily blame it on the caravan, it’s perhaps more my “condition” (vagueness intended).

I’m now contemplating clearing the peeled-off ceiling paint from the bed that was left behind by the house’s previous owner (Maria’s aversion to the fallen paint and the strange bed being the primary reason for sleeping in the caravan instead of the house), and taking my nights in the house. Of course Julius & I will have to thumb-wrestle for either the sheets or the right to choose where we sleep.

The caravan, a large one by all accounts, has electricity, but no water (only because
we haven’t figured out how to hook it up). The lack of water’s not really a problem though, because outside its front door is the outdoor part of our kitchen, which includes a couple of taps sticking out of the house wall, one of them emptying into a sink, the other into a drain. This drain is now backed up, and there’s a pool of standing water of a sort of grayish colour and a deteriorating odour. The other part of the outdoor kitchen includes a white plastic table randomly stacked with dishes, plates, and cutlery, and, depending on the time of day, an assortment of food.

The indoor part of the kitchen is located in a cobweb-ridden room downstairs. Here we have a small fridge and a gas stove with 3 burners.

Our ablutions include a toilet that doesn’t flush, necessitating the filling of a plastic jug from the trickling shower next to it, and using it to wash down, well, you know what. Yesterday the shower stopped working, thus requiring a trip downstairs to the taps sticking out of the wall in order to fill the plastic jug. As of yesterday, the sink in the bathroom is also clogged, with a pond of milky, filmy water now greeting us every time we go in there. Today, the toilet itself clogged, refusing to wash down anything but paper. We’re now figuring our next move on that one.

Showering, while possible in the cold, trickling water of our shower, is a lot happier an occasion at our absent neighbour’s house, which is a good few lungfulls’ walk up our steep driveway. This is also where we do our laundry.

In short, we’re camping – pure and simple. Or, perhaps, living a budget-type existence not unlike our travels in South America a dozen or so years ago – this is what my memories keep regurgitating. I figured I’d outgrown that life some time back. Apparently not.

What else is life in Italy like? On the day I arrived, we sat outside in the garden, facing the sun setting over the Apennini mountains. First we had fresh melon with prosciutto, followed by fresh pasta in pommodoro sauce, accompanied by a delectable Rosso Piceno (a local €2 red wine), and capped off by one of Maria’s classic homemade tiramisu’s. The evening sky turned into a rosy glow, and the breeze off the mountains was soft and cooling. The only sounds were those of rural Italy – farmers ending their day, animals ending theirs, and the creatures of the night starting to waken. The cheap, white plastic chair that I was sitting on felt like a throne…

Italian bureaucracy - parte uno

Ever sell a car in North Carolina? Pretty straightforward – in the presence of a DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) official or a notary public, sign your name as the seller in the space provided on the title, get the buyer to do the same in his/her space on the title, and you’re done.

But woe betide if the title is jointly held by more than one person, and one of the title-holders is not physically present. It’s worse if one of said joint title-holders is in Italy. I know. From first-hand experience. Here’s what happens.

In spite of the bad name that US DMV’s have, they actually make it quite easy for an absent title-holder to let someone else sign for them. It’s a simple half-page Power of Attorney (PoA) form, most of it white space, with a few spaces for things like make, model, year, title-holder name, and signature – not much more than that. So if the title-holder was in, say, California, they’d merely have to fill out the form, sign it in the presence of a notary public, and fax it – yes, fax it – to the other title-holder for the closing.

In concept, one would think that this principle would be easily transferable to another language. Russian – perhaps. Swedish – maybe. Italian – no. But it has nothing to do with the language, and everything to do with the national bureaucracy.

The mistake we made – with Maria in Italy and me in North Carolina – was to say the PoA was for the sale of a car. We would have been better off saying it was a general PoA. But hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty, or, in this case, vente-vente.

First of all, finding a notary public in Italy to sign such a document in August is well nigh impossible, with the country’s “out for lunch” sign permanently displayed in the window for the entire month. Next, notary publics, or notaio’s, in Italy seem to have a different standing in the community, and they have gold-plated signs outside their offices. Gold-plated signs outside offices still mean something in Italy – I’m not sure exactly what, but it’s clearly something to aspire to (for reasons that I won’t go into here). I don’t know what training they have to go through, but they seem to hold a station akin to that of, say, a magistrate, and as a result, there are simply not that many of them. The notaio in Tolentino – yes, just the one in a town of 40,000-plus – was on vacation, so Maria had to go to another town to find someone to sign the document.

That’s of course after she had spent numerous hours with an Italian attorney “translating” the document. As the first order of translating business, the attorney asked her: “That’s all you need to transfer a car’s title in the US?” Needless to say, there were evil forebodings in those words, and the “translation”, which required me to fax her the titles of the cars, somehow turned a half-page, mostly-white-space form into a 3-page document of dense type and intense legalese. Having spent two full days getting this done, and finally finding a notaio that wasn’t on vacation some 50 km distant, they faxed over the completed document.

Mission accomplished? Far from it. First – the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of one of the two cars on the PoA was wrong, the title number having been entered instead (duh – of course it’s a different number, everyone knows that). Given the amount of effort that went into all of this, I deemed this inexcusable, and yet at the same time, entirely understandable. The NC DMV considered such an error irretrievable – they wouldn’t accept it that way. It needed to be done again.

However, that wasn’t the only problem – the translation, quite obviously, was in Italian! Not a language that the NC DMV is accustomed to dealing in. So, having received the fax in Chapel Hill, I had to not only find an official Italian translator – a commodity as abundant as notaio’s in Italy in August, I might add – but one that could do it in a day. After a mad scramble, I found one – at a fairly hefty price, of course – only to discover the VIN/title number error after the work had already been commissioned.

It goes on from there, in similar vane. Suffice it to say that so far we’ve transferred one title successfully (when I was still in the US), and we’re now awaiting the transfer of the second. This latter one will have to be done by a third party acting as PoA on both of our parts, given that we’re here in Italy. Naturally, we’re expecting it to go without a hitch…

Tolentino, the internet ... and Africa

No-one would accuse me of being technically cool. In fact, most tech-hip cruisers would likely see me as the middle-aged prat that I am. But there is one thing that’s likely true – I do know my way around the internet, perhaps even better than a lot of people my age. That’s because I spend a fair amount of time online, to the point that it’s become an integral part of my day.

Now one of the sub-plots in the move to Marche is to change all of that, and to get more out into the world. I didn’t see it as a cold turkey thing, though, and so, while I didn’t expect our home’s hamlet of Regnano to be “connected”, I did expect it of nearby Tolentino, enough for a daily (or at least every other day) catchup of email, news, blog, and the like.

Tolentino has 3 public “Internet Points”, with five PCs between them. Two of them are infected with a Trojan worm, and for some reason I can’t even get to my email on them. Yesterday, neither of the other two “Points” was even open! On the positive side, I do get a feeling of nostalgia when the Windows 98 slogan appears during start-up.

However, for a man looking to “catch up” – has my BMW sold back in the US? who won the US Open? did SA beat Australia in the last Tri-Nations rugby game of 2006? – not being connected is enough to be somewhat unhinging.

As it turns out, all 3 “Internet Points” are run by Africans. This is not something I expected. And stepping into them is like stepping into Africa – amongst other things, pictures of Mecca and the Hajj adorn the walls, not something one would expect to see in a country that bows down to the pope. However, in this next respect they’re perhaps not out of place in Italy – things may work … or they may not.

But there’s a larger thing going on here – an African speaking Italian? Even though it’s been over a year since I first discovered it, I’m still surprised every time I hear it. French – yes. English – yes. Even Portuguese. But Italian?

By Marche standards, Tolentino is a good-sized town, with a population similar to that of our last “home town”, Chapel Hill – about 40-odd thousand. (Here, by the way, ends the similarity between Chapel Hill and Tolentino). Its population is predominantly locally born and bred – that is to say, Marchigiani. I don’t know how many Africans are here, but those that are do not appear to be from Italy’s sole colonial conquest in Africa – Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). They are rather primarily from Senegal and Ivory Coast, with others from north Africa providing an additional Arabic flavour. It seems they have been attracted here by the work offered in the commercial and industrial factories of the area – leather, motors, furniture, and I’ve yet to discover what else.

At some level, however, while the reasons they’re here is interesting information, and it contributes to the overall Tolentino tapestry, it’s really academic. The point is that the Africans are here. And while it’s unexpected, I think it’s a wonderful thing (my internet challenges notwithstanding).

“What else is under the covers?” I’m thinking.

Time to go

[Created at the Raleigh-Durham airport on September 5, 2006]

I tried hard to focus on the scenery passing outside the car window, travelling east on I-40 to Raleigh-Durham airport. But the greenery that impressed me four years ago when I first came down here is lost against the churn in my mind of the logistics ahead – what if they don’t accept all my luggage and I have to leave stuff behind? who will I give it to? what will they say about my one-way ticket? what if they turn me back on the other side? My perennial affliction: “what if” paralysis. Some people drift through their journeys, distracted by mere twitches in the passing show – as a result, they frequently miss their trains, but they don’t miss the life that’s going on around them. Others, like me, are destined to wallow in the mire of our minds, figuring out what we still need to do, how it’s going to go, what can go wrong … and then missing the show as we do.

But with the “new world” of travel that we find ourselves in – straitjacketed into a system of weights and measures, checks and re-checks – it bears being vigilant to avoid its wallet-lightening repercussions when you tread over its rigid boundaries. So I pack, weigh, re-pack. Re-weigh. Sweat. Re-distribute. Re-weigh. Shower.

Ultimately, it pays dividends, with one suitcase hitting the weight limit on the nose, the other creeping in under the limit by a hair. Ah, finally a reward for my anal-retentiveness. Of course the measure of my satisfaction pales against the magnitude of the effort that went into getting there – another established trait – but it’s a victory nonetheless. Finally, I can relax.

Walking down the wide corridor of RDU, I pass a fast-food restaurant called “All American Food.” At last I’m a little reflective, and think of where I’ve been the past 19 years – New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, North Carolina. Then I consider where I’m going – rural Italy. The phrase “chalk and cheese” springs to mind, and I’m satisfied that I won’t miss the chemistry of “All American Food.” And while I feel the same about W, wire taps, and intolerance, I’m sure that I’ll hanker after the convenience of American life when I’m wading through the swamps of Italian bureaucracy, having already experienced it several times already.

No doubt there’ll be other things too, but I don’t know what they are yet. Not long to wait now, however – in an hour or so, I’ll be on my way to Washington, then Munich, then Ancona, where Claudia, Julius & Mr. Young await my arrival tomorrow afternoon. This day has finally arrived, I’m going to Italy.