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Winner of Contest 2006

Harried Here

Rebecca Winke

I'm the mother of two now. Double the pleasure, double the fun.

Fifty bazillion times the guilt.

I've found that the life of a working mother of multiple children is one in which every moment of every day you feel that you should really be doing something else. When I'm spending time with one son, I feel I am neglecting the other. When I am with both, I stress about the backed up work I have. When I am working, I know I am just contributing to their maladjustment as adults. When I go to bed early, I have sweat tinged dreams of dying with fifteen extra pounds still on me. When I am up at 1 A.M. cussing my way through "The Firm's Complete Body Workout plus Steel Abs," I am fully conscious that I will be barely fit to parent the next morning at 7 A.M.

I feel stretched thin, worn out, overwhelmed. I had the thought the other day that if my husband decided to take a lover, it would actually be somewhat of a relief. Perhaps I could get her to stop by and take care of that 2 A.M. feeding, as well.

Does it sound like I'm whining? Well, I am. Because it wasn't supposed to be this way. I mean, I live in Italy. Not Milan, Italy. Umbria, Italy. A slow place. A lingering over cappuccinos in the morning place. A three hour lunch place. A napping all afternoon place. So why is it that I am up at three in the morning folding laundry and balancing the checkbook half the time?

When I moved here (over a decade ago, now; how can that possibly be?!?) I had a very clear idea of what life in the Bel Paese would be like. It was a cross between "A Room with a View" and a Campari commercial. All long, swishy skirts and big romantic straw hats covering my full head of romantic cascading ringlets by day, and hot little Versace numbers and barely-there four inch heeled sandals, flitting from hot spot to hot spot by night.

I realized almost immediately after arriving that my vision was somewhat flawed. First of all, I have lifeless, straight, greasy hair. I was born with it, and will die with it. Ringlets are, in this life at least, out. Secondly, the only women in Italy who wear long, swishy skirts and big romantic straw hats are Anglo-Saxon tourists who have seen "A Room With A View" four times too many.

My then-boyfriend-now-husband also undermined my dream. For example, he seemed to be under the impression that I should work for a living, which seriously cut into my swishy skirt daytime. Also, instead of greeting me at the airport with a huge bunch of roses, he handed me a trowel and sack of 425 and said, "Remember, Babe. One part water to five parts sand and thee parts cement." A few hours later we were already laying brick for the house we then spent ten years (and counting) restoring. Let me tell you, when you've spent the day cleaning four thousand antique terra cotta roof tiles with a wire brush and acid, the last thing you are up to doing at midnight is the salsa.

Plus, who can afford Versace?

And here we have it, folks. The sad truth: life as an expat in Italy just ain't that different from life, well, anywhere.

Okay, okay. Yeah, some people leave the rat race in LA, sell all their worldly possessions, invest the money, and live off the interest and the modest earnings from their small organic sheep farm in beautiful rural Tuscany where they eschew TV, Target, and deodorant. But the vast majority of foreigners who are living in Italy are essentially living the same life they would be in Boston or Leeds or Brisbane, except the view is nicer, the food better, and the mail slower.

I can already see you out there, you who have been ferreting away articles about moving to Italy for ten years now and following the exchange rate closer than Greenspan and taping up travel posters of sunflower fields above your kitchen sink, shaking your head in disbelief and outrage. I am clearly one of those poor, sad philistines who has Italy cast before her like pearls before swine.

I offer you My Typical Day:

Up at seven with last night's mascara smeared in dark rings under my eyes and bad hair - generally resembling Cruela D'Evil, but not as thin. Twenty minutes to become human through a hot shower and caffeine administered intravenously. Then my kids wake up, and I spend the next hour dressing, feeding, and taming them. And I also try to get the beds made, the dishwasher started, and a load of whites hung out, though sometimes fate is not on my side. I take my four year old to preschool at nine and spend an hour or so running errands, which, quite like rodents, seem to mate and multiply on my to-do list during the night. By eleven I am home to put my one year old down for a nap. And then I have AN HOUR of time to run my home, business, and personal life. Then noon rolls around, the baby wakes up, my husband comes home for lunch, and pasta is made. I run out to pick up my preschooler at one, my husband leaves for work a half an hour later, and I parent for two hours. Then the one year old goes down for a nap. Then the four year old goes down for a nap. And then I have AN HOUR of time to run my home, business, and personal life. Then everyone is up, my husband is home, and we parent for a couple of hours. At seven we bathe the beasts, at eight we dine, at nine we toss them into bed. And from nine until when we collapse from sheer exhaustion around 1 A.M., we work.

Our social life revolves around preschool birthday parties, PTA meetings, and pizzas with friends. Our outings are hikes in the woods or into town for a look at the shops. Our preoccupations are our finances, our kids' health, our businesses, how to download the damn pictures from the digital camera, and where diapers are on sale. So, you people tell me, with a life like this, what difference does it make where I'm living?

Surely part of this is because we are in that thirty-something working and parenting mode. I recently read Marjorie Williams' memoir about her battle with cancer in which she says, "What you do, if you have little kids, is lead as normal a life as possible, but with more pancakes." That generally rings true for living in Italy as well, but with more cornetti.

However, for most people, this period of life essentially segues into retirement. When I talk to my Grandma on the phone, I say, "Hey, Grandma, watcha been doing?" and she says, "Oh, honey, I've just been drinking my coffee and reading the Trib, then I'm going to putz around in the yard and then head over to Field's for the White Sale and lunch with the girls" which, from what I can tell, is pretty much what retired folks do all over the world. And given the lengthy online discussions I've read discussing health coverage for the elderly expat in Italy, apparently older expats worry about getting sick and dying here, too.

Of course there are differences between the life I lead here and the life that I probably would be leading had I stayed back in the States (though life is a crazy toboggan ride, so who really knows?). I do live in one of the most beautiful places on earth, a fact that doesn't seem to count for much until I go home to the Chicago suburbs and am slapped in the face with how incredibly butt-ugly they are. I run a business I love, and which I probably would never had considered if it hadn't fallen in my lap once I got here. Filaments of history and tradition run through our daily activities in ways I have come to take for granted, but leave us much more rooted in this area than most Americans. I now know how to say things like rumble strips and stork in another language.

I think it is human nature to dream about a different life, one in which there is greener, tidier grass tended by paid help. Most of our guests who come through dream aloud about how wonderful it would be to pick up and move to Italy, where the pace of life is so slow and the pasta so perfectly cooked. I recently spent almost a month in Chicago, visiting friends and family and vacationing with my sons. My husband flew over for a few days in the middle of that time and we spent our afternoons strolling around the beautiful neighborhoods on the north side of Chicago, admiring the architecture and poking around in boutiques and cafes. Our conversation inevitably turned to what it would be like if we were to move back there. How relaxing and beautiful it was. The great breakfast places. The nightlife.

Then we forced ourselves to take a reality check. If we were to move back to the Chicago, first of all, no way in hell could we afford a brownstone in Lincoln Park, walking distance to the Lake. We could hardly afford to vacation there for three weeks. And if we could manage to live there, it would only be because we were both working sixty hour weeks, which means no time for strolling, poking, breakfasting out, or nightlife. Our little free time would be taken up with parenting and grocery shopping. So, as far as we could ascertain, we would be, once again, living the same life we do in Italy, but with a good bagel place around the corner.

Here or there, it comes down to this. We wish for more hours in the day, but cram as much as we possibly can into those we have. We look forward to a time when we can slow down and spend more time relaxing, but that seems perennially just out of our grasp. We answer the question, "How are you?" with, "Busy!". We do this here, there, and everywhere. But, some days, when the sun sets just right making Assisi a glowing shade of rose with every window reflecting blinding gold back to me, when I have a client who departs with tears of gratitude, when a complete stranger walks up to me and declares my son to be the spitting image of my husband's great grandfather, I am thankful to be harried here, and not anywhere else on earth.


Rebecca's View is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Rebecca's View - Introduction" for more information.

Rebecca Winke lives in Assisi, Italy and operates Brigolante Guest Apartments. www.brigolante.com

© Rebecca Winke, 2005

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