27. Brentry

I should probably update the picture that is the header up there on this blog.  We’re all over the place as always, and now there’s a new entry.  The latest challenge to traditional family stability has come from Oxford University in the UK.  Marianna was offered a post-doc position to collaborate on a project for up to 2 years at Oxford.  Weighing unemployment in Italy against employment Oxford leads to a pretty clear choice.  The complications resulting from that choice are now our reality. 

That sounds rather dramatic.  I suppose that in the eyes of many, it is.  Marianna will be working on this project at the University of Oxford which, in simplified terms, aims to encourage people in England to learn other languages.  It’s a project that would be positive for people in the US too.  She’ll work for 2 months in the UK, taking short breaks to come back to Siena, and then spend 6 weeks in Siena.  This cycle will continue for the next year and a half or so. 

This time around it’s my turn to steer the ship through the rough waters of (temporary) single-parenthood.   Kindergarten is guaranteed in Italy for children from ages 3-5, and it’s free except for lunch fees.  Compared to really expensive daycare in the UK, Italy was the easy choice.  In Italy however, it is far from culturally normal for a father to assume full responsibility for a three-year-old by choice.  I’ve been getting a lot of questions like “Well, who is going to look after your son?”  Those who ask questions like that usually don’t realize how condescending that can sound to someone like me who is, ideologically, a participant in the 21st century.  If you too are wondering, the answer is: It’s me!  I can cook food and I understand how clothing works, both as it is applied to the human form as well as how to clean it.   I don’t mean to oversimplify.  Parenthood is no joke and single-parenthood requires a colossal amount of self-sacrifice.  I have seen the edge where sanity drops off into insanity, but I’ve managed to keep it together so far.  It’s really hard at times, but it’s doable.  I’m also certainly no substitute for Mom.  The situation is probably better described as Dad squared.  My job and the colleagues with whom I work are flexible enough to fit our new arrangement into the organizational scheme.  As long as this isn’t permanent, we’ll make it work.

Of course Sean and I will travel to the UK a few times and that is just what we did recently.  Accordingly, I’ll be writing about experiences and observations made in the UK for a few entries here.  As Europe prepares for Brexit, we’re going against the current.  Call it Brentry?

The UK.  Let’s get the cliché stuff out of the way.  Yes, British people have accents that differ from my own, they apply different meanings to a handful of words in English than us Americans, and their roads and cars are organized based on a photographic negative.  Driving in the upside-down is frightening, but our brain’s ability to adapt prevails and backwards becomes normal surprisingly fast.

Morgan, my friend from college and his wife Becky in Cardiff.

Our week in the UK took us to Cardiff to see an old friend, Bristol to visit Marianna’s cousins, and of course, to Oxford.  There’s a lot to recount, like Sean’s first real trick-or-treat experience, but I’m going to stick to one particular event that was, for me, both a surprise as well as perfectly British. 

Marianna’s supervisor for her project invited us to come to her house for dinner and to watch fireworks.  This was all of the information that we were given.  We were not expecting to torch an effigy of Donald Trump on a huge bonfire in a residential backyard.    

The event was Guy Fawkes day.  As it was explained to us, Guy Fawkes was a Catholic and he was pissed off at the non-Catholic monarchy in England for not being Catholic.  He and some other gentlemen planned on blowing up Westminster Palace with a bunch of gunpowder in 1606.  Guy was found guarding the gunpowder underneath the palace, and that was about it for him.  His capture and the prevention of a deadly, gunpowder-fueled fireworks show is now celebrated by lighting bonfires and shooting of fireworks.  The bonfire tradition is likely tied to age-old harvest and winter ceremonies that predate any of the religions that we currently like to believe.  Following the harvest, there was always a bunch of leftover dried-up plants.  What better way to deal with them than setting them on fire and have a party?  I was told that not long ago in England the halloween tradition of trick-or-treating did not feature candy, but people gave out small amounts of money to children.  A penny for the Guy!” the children would say and they would use the earnings to buy fireworks to set off for the Guy Fawkes celebrations that shortly followed Halloween.

Katrin, Marianna’s supervisor, is German, but has been living in the UK for a long time.  She and her husband have been hosting the Guy Fawkes dinner for about 20 years.  It was a bit awkward being the random people at the party that’s been happening for 20 years.  At least Marianna had an easy explanation for who she was and why she was invited.  I had to introduce myself to everyone as the American husband that Italian over there who’s working with Katrin and is the mother of that little three-year-old who lives with me, his father, in Italy.  Many, understandably were too bewildered to proceed.  Others were willing to engage in conversation despite the complexity and total randomness of my presence and I met some very interesting people.  Among the people I met was an astrophysicist who was traditionally in charge of the fireworks.  Astrophysicists, or rocket scientists, don’t mess around when it comes to fireworks.  This is a fact and it would be proven later in the evening.

The evening started with champagne, and a lot of it and we were cautiously introduced to the the effigy of Mr. Trump.  He was on display in the corner of the room.  It’s unclear whether they were hoping to offend a Trump-supporting American, or receive praise from a Trump-hating American.  As I write this, I realize that, sadly, those are the only two kinds of Americans that now exist.  I find myself among the latter camp of Trump opinionists, and I wholeheartedly condoned their symbolic gesture towards the current president of the USA. 

Dinner was impressively served to more than 25 people at a table made for about 10.  In stereotypically British fashion, politeness prevailed despite almost sitting on top of one-another.  When everyone had been served their sausage and jacket potatoes (baked potatoes, for us, less-descriptive Americans), the patriarch of the situation announced calmly that he would be heading outside to throw Trump onto the bonfire and that fireworks would shortly follow.  The rest of the partygoers were just as mild-mannered and almost nobody reacted with any sense of urgency to follow.  I was thoroughly intrigued however.  I grabbed Sean and took him outside along with Marianna.  I feel that I needed to experience every minute of this and so did my Son. 

True to his word, a bonfire was set ablaze and The Donald was eaten by flames.  Slowly, the rest of the party made their way outside, saying British things like “Ah, yes”, and “Well, that’s a nice fire”.  Meanwhile, I noticed that the four-meter-high flames licking the tree hanging directly over the fire.  I watched, pondering what I know about fire and trees.  Before I could come up with a potential escape plan, a rocket lit by the rocket scientist, shot into the sky and exploded in classic firework form.  The fire raged on, the tree remained a tree, fireworks lit the suburban Oxford sky, and we were served mugs of mulled wine.

It’s the nonchalance and reserved attitude with that British air of class that for me, seems so… British.  Americans would be screaming and hollering at a bonfire and drinking budweiser instead of champagne.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s just as fun, but of a different kind.  Americans in 2017 would also have taken all of the necessary safety precautions to ensure that the event would not be enjoyable at all.  I remember lighting all kinds of fireworks off in the streets in Denver when I was a kid on the 4th of July.  Now the police patrol neighborhoods making sure that nobody is having any kind of fun.  They say that the fire danger is higher than it used to be.  I disagree.  I think that we’re just more afraid of ourselves.  Maybe because we’re scarier.

Italians on the other hand, share the same disregard for safety as the British, but that’s about all.  Traditions in Italy involving bonfires usually come with days worth of pageantry and costumes that pay homage to those who lit stuff on fire before them.  In Italy ceremonies are not calmly enacted whilst people are still finishing dinner.  Dinners at traditional events in Italy take 3 hours and days to prepare.  Then there are speeches upon drawn out, non-linear speeches that nobody can follow.  By the time the traditional event actually occurs in Italy, multiple, sleepless days may have passed.  The casual bonfire that we witnessed in a backyard in Oxford wound down as sensibly as it had started just in time for everyone (except probably Katrin’s family) to have some tea and get a good night’s rest. 

Sipping my mulled wine with one hand and holding Sean so that he wouldn’t end up on fire with the other hand, a thought crossed my mind.  It’s a recurring thought.  How the hell did I end up here?  Of course, I know the answer to that question, but it’s easy to let the the present seem like the only part of the story.  The present in our story is split between Siena and Oxford, and I’ll do my best to write about it, a month or so late if that’s ok. 

Here’s a video of Sean’s adventures in the UK.  Thanks to all!

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